December 01 2021

Can a deal finally be done on press regulation?

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Can a deal finally be done on press regulation?

cameras in court-2For months politicians and newspapers have been embroiled in a bad-tempered row over the future of press regulation.

  • Photo from Flickr under creative comms licence by Megan Mallen

But in recent weeks there have been some dramatic developments. On Tuesday 8 October the Privy Council rejected the newspaper industry’s version of a royal charter.

Three days later, all three main political parties agreed on a Royal Charter for press regulation, but this announcement was immediately met with discontent and suspicion by newspaper editors. So where does the future of press regulation now lie?…

The history of regulation
Freedom of the press is one of the most important fundamental human rights. In the United Kingdom, the press and public are able to access, write or discuss any material they wish, home or abroad. Such freedoms are ones that journalists and citizens in censored countries such as Syria, North Korea, Libya and so on can only begin to dream of.

But in recent times, on more than one occasion the press has gone too far. Celebrities, politicians, even victims of crime have been exploited, phones hacked or deceased family members brought into the ‘media circus’ unnecessarily.

Journalists hold an important role as a public watchdog in a democratic society. But those who forget their role, not only ruin trust in the profession, but can also ruin lives, harm reputations and relationships.

The Leveson Inquiry, set up by David Cameron in July 2011 following the revelations of phone-hacking, meant that regulation of the press was firmly thrust into the spotlight.

Lord Justice Leveson led the public inquiry by considering the culture and ethics of the press, hearing from hundreds of witnesses, including celebrities and families of victims, such as the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

Leveson’s conclusion in November 2012 that the press had ‘wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people,’ was followed by the recommendation to create a new press standards body backed by legislation and a new code of conduct. But he was clear in saying that the press should continue to be self-regulated, the government not dictating what can and cannot be published.

Leveson believed that his own suggestions would enable this: ‘I do not believe that the independent self-regulatory regime that I proposed in any sense impacts the freedom of the press to publish what it wants.’

Law, politics and the press – is it possible for all three to co-exist?
Lord Justice Leveson –  when repeatedly questioned on his report and pushed into giving an opinion – would not budge on his opinion that it would be wrong for him to comment on matters of politics.

‘I am not expressing an opinion. I have expressed my opinion – I think – very, very clearly. There it is. I am not expressing an opinion on what should happen now. I would hope that the press and those who are concerned about press abuses could come together to resolve their issues through the medium of politicians. That’s what you do,’  Lord Leveson told the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Yet the Privy Council has rejected the press’s suggestion towards a Royal Charter, instead agreeing on their own version. But politicians agreeing is only the first step, and as some have commented, maybe even the easiest. The press must come on board and at the moment it appears that they may take some convincing.

While the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, has spoken out saying that the agreed regulation will safeguard the freedom of the press and the future of local papers, the industry has commented that the proposals are neither ‘voluntary nor independent’.

And with that said it appears some newspapers are determined to go it alone rather than follow this political charter. Politicians, quite obviously aware of the air of disquiet, are calling on the papers to ‘engage’ with the new system and for ‘no boycotting’ to go ahead.

One of the main issues for the press was being able to prevent parliament blocking or approving any future changes to regulation. Thus while the draft charter has been hailed by politicians to include some important changes, there will be no budging on how the system can be amended. Miller has commented that the point is not up for negotiation.

But discontent continues to grow, the industry steering group who represent publishers said: ‘This remains a charter written by politicians, imposed by politicians and controlled by politicians. It has not been approved by any of the newspapers or magazines it seeks to regulate.’

What do newspapers want?
Newspaper publishers complained that some of the Leveson recommendations were unworkable and thus created an alternative Royal Charter, with The Guardian, Financial Times and Independent being  the only three national titles not to sign up to it.

This charter proposed that more people with experience of the newspaper industry should sit on the panel responsible for future press regulation. It denied parliament the power to block or approve future changes to regulation and proposed that regulators should only be able to ‘require’ newspapers to make corrections rather than ‘direct’. But David Cameron said it had ‘serious shortcomings’ back in July and therefore while he had said it would be formally considered, it is of no great surprise maybe that it was rejected by the Privy Council.

The Times Editor, John Witherow, said on Wednesday that the owners of Britain’s bestselling titles would press ahead with establishing its own watchdog, which he claimed provides ‘pretty well everything’ that Leveson recommended.

What do politicians want?
The government’s proposed Royal Charter paves the way for a new independent press regulator, with powers to fine news publishers up to £1m and demand prominent apologies and corrections. The charter proposed a free arbitration service for victims of unscrupulous reporting and a faster complaints system. It can also only be subsequently amended if there is a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament. During a late-night meeting in March, the proposals won cross-party backing and the support of campaign group Hacked Off.

What does the public want?
Perhaps the biggest campaigner in press regulation is the body Hacked off.

It has said it is pleased with the proposed Royal Charter. Interestingly it believes that the new Charter will not pose a threat to freedom of expression going on to say, ‘ordinary people will have far better redress when things go wrong, and the Charter will also benefit the industry giving it a chance to rebuild trust and show its commitment to high standards’.

What happens now?
Following the Government’s proposal, it seems that the UK’s national newspapers will be looking to take, “high-level legal advice” before deciding whether to comply with this new regulator. Reactions from main newspapers have not been positive:

The Society of Editors warning that the proposed Royal Charter could threaten Press freedom.

The Sun: Celebrations are premature…much remains to be studied before the Royal Charter can be accepted as the foundation stone of new regulation.

The Times: This was a deal done without the involvement of the British Press. There was a basic principle at stake and it has been lost. The role of a free press is to hold the government to account. It should not work the other way round. Despite Mr Cameron’s bland reassurance, there is no such thing as a “dab” of statute. Regulation of the press is a matter either recognised in law or it is not.

Only a few it seems have noted or accepted the part the industry has played in this conclusion.

The Daily Telegraph: The near unanimity in parliament yesterday in support of the new approach was a powerful indication of how far the Press needs to move in order to restore faith in its regulatory structure. The three party leaders urged the newspaper industry to endorse the new dispensation as quickly as possible. However, after 318 years of a free press, its detail deserves careful consideration.

The Independent: Given the behaviour of parts of the press over the past few years, and given the Prime Minister’s decision to appoint a judge to shine so unflinching a light on it, something akin to what was agreed yesterday was always the probable outcome. It is not perfect, from the Press perspective. But it could have been worse. Now, all the Press must put the posturing and face-saving behind it, accept the new system and move on. Most importantly, we must begin to rebuild public trust in journalism.

Important to note is that politicians have constantly re-iterated that they want to protect freedom of press, Shadow Culture Secretary, Harriet Harman, saying newspapers had nothing to fear from the all-party draft charter.

As it stands now the new charter must have the press on board or it will be a failure of a system, so if signing up to the charter is voluntary then what will be the case if newspapers do not sign up? Can political involvement really end up in true freedom of press?