Response to The Spectator: anti-Leveson arguments showing their age

By Nathan Sparkes

With the Labour Party now favourites to form a government after the next General Election, it should not be a surprise to see unregulated newspapers and magazines publishing articles criticising the Party’s support for the Leveson recommendations.

For years the press has been able to rely on the compliance of Conservative Governments (often acting without the support of Conservative MPs & Conservative Party members) to shelter them from the prospect of accountability.

After the next election that could all change, and as we get closer to May 2024, we can expect to see press attacks on Labour’s position intensify.

Sure enough, over the weekend The Spectator published a piece from Nick Cohen which criticised the Party’s position on press regulation, headlined “Labour’s disturbing attitude to press freedom”.

Predictably, the article includes a series of misleading remarks.  Here are some of them.

[Starmer] is also proposing a deeply dangerous restriction on press freedom by reviving the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking. 

The Leveson recommendations are in no need of “revival”.  The system of regulation he recommended is in force and is more popular among news publishers than the press’ industry-controlled alternative “IPSO” (of which The Spectator is handily a member).

What is required is some form of incentive or compulsion to encourage national newspapers to leave IPSO and join the independent & local titles already in an independent regulator.

No one defending press freedom [on The Spectator & Nick Cohen’s view of it] is defending phone hacking or the journalistic standards of newspaper X or the bigotry of magazine Y.

An independent regulator would have the effect of raising standards at newspapers.

The failed complaints-handler, the PCC, investigated phone hacking and found nothing – despite the fact it was widespread – which contributed to the period that the scandal was covered up.

So, to be clear, independent regulation is a part of the answer to phone hacking & fundamental to addressing the “bigotry of magazine Y”.

Those defending press freedom are instead resisting the possibility of state direction of the media, if the government gives regulators the power to punish content that is not illegal. 

This is a tired argument from ten years ago, which is showing its age.

It was strongly argued by newspapers in 2012 and 2013 that the Leveson recommendations would allow “state direction of the media” in some form.

Well, ten years on, we have an independent regulator – so let’s have a look at how its members have been “directed” to become agents of the state.

There’s the Canary, Left Foot Forward, New Internationalist… if these publications have become mouthpieces of the Conservative Government, they are hiding it well.

In fact, you have to look hard to find a single IMPRESS publisher which shows any sign of pro-Government bias.

Hacked Off & other free speech organisations supporting Leveson explained that this argument was baseless in 2012.  Over time, we have been proven right.

Nonetheless, it is a relief that we have unregulated titles like The Spectator, known for its fiercely anti-Conservative Government, left-wing, exposing-the-powerful journalism…

As for the government “giv[ing] regulators the power to punish content that is not illegal”, the Royal Charter, which lays out the Leveson system, sets out the very modest requirements which regulators must meet and the limits of its powers.  The Government cannot unilaterally change what is in the Charter.

Cohen then attacks “section 40” of the Crime and Courts Act, an “anti-SLAPP” measure designed to protect freedom of the press, while guaranteeing the public’s access to justice:

Section 40, which has never come into force, would allow anyone making a claim against a publisher of ‘news-related material’, who has refused to join a state-approved regulator, to recoup all their costs, even if they lose…

If news organisations stand firm, then a Labour government will have to watch as, in the words of Index on Censorship, the ‘corrupt and conniving’ (and I would add the simply malicious) silence journalists with vexatious law suits.

The Leveson system is not “state approved”.  It is independently approved.

And this is not how section 40 works.

Section 40 would protect newspapers from vexatious lawsuits, while guaranteeing access to justice for the public.  It would do this by incentivising both defendant and claimant to use the cheap arbitration system, instead of the courts, of an independent regulator.

Press freedom is a special case, and I make no apologies for saying that, and has been recognised as such since the 18th century. Attempts by governments to stifle it must be viewed with the utmost caution because the press investigates the government.

The Leveson system protects press freedom in a way IPSO does not (and cannot).

Under the Leveson model politicians are banned from involvement.  Whereas IPSO, The Spectator’s complaints-handler, counts at least three politicians among its various bodies and committees, including as its Chair.

That is why publishers for whom “press freedom” is more than just a slogan choose to join IMPRESS, the only Leveson-compliant and independent regulator.

If The Spectator’s support for the freedom of the press & freedom from “state direction” is sincere, then why does it persist with a complaints-handler run by a politician?


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