The editors and proprietors of national newspapers have more than 60 years’ experience of manoeuvring to avoid independent and effective regulation. Again and again down the decades they have bullied politicians into pulling back from the measures needed to curtail abuses of press freedom such as distortion, fabrication, intrusion and intimidation.
Now they are trying their tricks again, assuming the result will be the same as before. But they are wrong, because this time the tricks aren’t working.
Lord Justice Leveson set out proposals for an independent and effective regulator. Although this was to be a self-regulatory body, it was be independently audited by a ‘recognition body’ to ensure it met basic, specified standards.
For nearly eight months the leading proprietors have used all their power and influence to neuter the proposed new regulator and block the creation of the recognition body. But they have not succeeded.
The cross-party Charter – supported by statutory provisions about costs and damages – provides, for the first time, a robust regulatory framework for the press. Despite the hysterical opposition of many newspapers, this Charter was approved by every single party in Parliament – an extremely rare demonstration of political consensus.
The cabal of newspaper groups that believe that they have something to lose from effective self-regulation – Associated, News International and the Telegraph – have since engaged in increasingly desperate attempts to delay the inevitable.
They proposed a half-baked rival Charter of their own, even though they and everybody else knows that it is inconceivable that a Charter backed by Parliament could be overridden by one promoted by a tiny and discredited vested interest.
Most recently they have dreamt up IPSO – the ‘Independent Press Standards Organisation’. This is a rehash of the so-called ‘Hunt-Black’ plan that was decisively rejected in the Leveson Report and, like Hunt-Black it is going nowhere.
IPSO is the creature of the industry’s funding body, PressBoF – the body that controlled the PCC and, with a little rebranding, hopes to remain in control.
There are six main reasons why IPSO is doomed.
1) It conspicuously fails to conform to the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson’s independent judicial inquiry. These recommendations are accepted by the public and by politicians as the essential elements of satisfactory reform.
2) Without public trust no regulator can function, and the polls show beyond doubt that the British public does not trust the press to regulate itself effectively on its own terms. This distrust is deep-seated: even the most intensive and outrageously dishonest press propaganda campaign has proved incapable of shifting it. The public wants the system set out in the cross-party Royal Charter and will settle for nothing less.
3) The politicians are less susceptible to press influence than in the past. Rupert Murdoch, notably, cannot order them around as he used to. The politicians can feel the democratic benefits of this freedom from bullying and they can also see what the voters want. A clear majority in the House of Commons and an overwhelming one in the House of Lords back – and continue to back (see Hansard, 3 July 2013, Col 1213) – Leveson.
4) The newspaper proprietors are isolated and exposed, and they face active opposition on many fronts. Not just Parliament and public opinion is ranged against them, but also many civil society groups and – most important – the victims of their past abuses, whose voice, consistently heard in the debate, commands widespread attention and support.
5) Even if the public were inclined to forgetfulness on this issue (and the polls show it isn’t), events are not ‘moving on’. Instead a series of high-profile criminal cases is set to keep past press abuses in the public eye for many months. This is likely to serve as a constant reminder of the need for meaningful change.
6) Lord Justice Leveson foresaw reluctance among some papers to join an effective self-regulator, and he made provision for that. Thus, only members of a ‘recognised’ regulator can benefit from the statutory incentives on costs and exemplary damages under the cross-party Charter. If IPSO is not recognised – and in its present shape it can’t be, because it falls far short of the necessary standards – then any papers that join it will not only miss out on the benefits of the Charter system, but they will also suffer disadvantages in terms of penalties in damages and costs.