By Brian Cathcart
The controversy surrounding Culture Secretary John Whittingdale today underlines how wrong he was, as a minister, to involve himself directly in the business of press regulation – something the Leveson Report explicitly warned against. In a healthy democracy the press must be free from meddling by politicians, and Hacked Off has always been clear on this point.* Such meddling raises three distinct dangers:
- Censorship, where politicians assert power to gag or bully news publishers;
- Corrupt trading in favours, where politicians alter their policies to suit news publishers in return for sympathetic coverage;
- Blackmail, where news publishers extract favours from politicians, contrary to the public interest, by threatening to reveal potentially embarrassing information about them.
If politicians have no role at all in press regulation these problems are far less likely to arise. Under the Royal Charter both press self-regulation itself and the oversight of press self-regulation are kept entirely free from political influence.
Last autumn, however, the Culture Secretary breached these barriers by suspending the implementation of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, a key element of the Charter system enacted by Parliament. He effectively shelved it until he decides to implement it. In doing so he unilaterally made himself the arbiter of press regulation standards, a move totally contrary to the provisions of the Charter system.
It is now accepted that, at the time when Mr Whittingdale made this intervention, he knew several national newspapers were in possession of a potentially embarrassing news story about him. This is precisely the kind of story they routinely publish almost irrespective of public interest justifications, but this time they withheld it – and it is surely naïve to suggest that they did so in this particular case because of ethical scruples never otherwise on show.
Mr Whittingdale’s action to shelve Section 40 was a cause of delight at corporate national newspapers. In addition, Mr Whittingdale leaked that he wants to cut short the Leveson Inquiry before it begins its second phase investigating press criminality and its cover-up. Again the papers were delighted.
Further, he set in motion processes clearly designed to shrink and weaken the BBC. Again the press, and particularly the Murdoch press, were pleased.
Hacked Off has no interest whatever in Mr Whittingdale’s private life, but this sequence of events makes his private life relevant to the matter of independent press regulation, which in turn affects many thousands of people.
Only very recently many of the victims of press abuse who gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry wrote to David Cameron to ask him why he was breaking his promises to them. He brushed off their concerns – and referred them to John Whittingdale.
Given what we now know, the public is inevitably left with the suspicion that, despite his denials, Mr Whittingdale’s actions could have been influenced by his knowledge that the press was aware of these private matters and might publish. That suspicion is fatal to trust in his ability to act in the public interest.
It is only five years since the hidden wiring of relationships between press and politicians started to be laid bare by the hacking scandal, and the result then was widespread outrage. Any politician entering this area today should ensure that his or her actions are clearly above board – especially at a time when personal and social relations with press bosses are being publicly renewed.
Mr Whittingdale should never have meddled. Parliament clearly intended him to commence Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act as a matter of routine by last autumn at the latest and that is precisely what he should have done. Before he makes things any worse he should commence it now and confirm that Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry will take place.
* Hacked Off was instrumental in ensuring that the terms of reference of the Leveson Inquiry included the explicit requirement that it make recommendations ‘for a new more effective policy and regulatory regime which supports the integrity and freedom of the press, the plurality of the media, and its independence, including from Government, while encouraging the highest ethical and professional standards. . . .’ also played a leading role in ensuring that under the Royal Charter working politicians can play no part in appointments to the Press Recognition Panel or in the PRP itself, nor could they play any part in a recognised press self-regulator or in appointments to one. By contrast, and at the insistence of the press proprietors, IPSO has no such bars, which means that working politicians could actually run IPSO just as they ran the Press Complaints Commission for most of its existence.