Time for government to stand firm on press regulation

Is this the moment of truth for the British press? Rui Vieira/PA Wire

On Monday evening, the BBC’s Newsnight programme revealed that a sub-committee of the privy council had rejected the Royal Charter on press self-regulation put forward by the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBof). By the following morning, rumours were rife that consideration of the Royal Charter on press self-regulation agreed by the three main political parties on March 18 would be delayed until October 30, immediately sparking fears that, in the interim, the newspapers would do their utmost to pressure the Tories into watering down the agreed Charter.

Given the extremely close relationship between the Tories and most of the press – as exemplified by the quite remarkable similarities between the Charter published by the Tories alone on February 12 and that put forward by PressBof on April 25 – such fears were entirely understandable.

However, when yesterday afternoon the culture secretary, Maria Miller, appeared before the House of Commons to confirm that the PressBof Charter had indeed been rejected by the privy council, she also revealed that during the coming week the three main parties would work on revisions to the agreed Charter in order to make it more “workable and effective”. She added that that the revised version would be put before MPs on Friday, thus leaving the press little time to have their wicked way with the Tories or anyone else.

Tough talk: Maria Miller yesterday.

The areas for revision appear to be pretty minor and reasonably uncontentious, having to do with the Editors’ Code Committee and the costs of any arbitration involving the local press. Local newspaper organisations have been considerably less guilty than the national press of the practices condemned by the Leveson Inquiry, but have been frightened and cajoled by the main offenders into standing shoulder to shoulder with them in the anti-Leveson campaign.

Delays, delays

So, maybe the worst fears of the agreed Charter’s champions haven’t been realised. But nonetheless, this is yet another delay to a lamentably long-drawn out process. No wonder the Labour MP Chris Bryant complained of it being like Groundhog Day, and even Sir Gerald Kaufman, no friend of the Leveson Inquiry, stated firmly that: “We cannot go on like this”.

Of course, this isn’t all down to Tory complicity with the press. Many Tories actually support Leveson’s proposals. Much of it has, in fact, to do with pure and simple fear of what an aggrieved press might do to them. In the course of their endless jeremiads against what they entirely inaccurately refer to as “statutory control of the press”, the papers have made it abundantly clear that they will not hesitate to take legal action if any form of self-regulation with which they don’t agree is brought into being. Indeed, they’ve even invoked the European Convention on Human Rights – over the matter of exemplary damages, for example – which, even by the standards of the British press, is quite astonishingly hypocritical, given the column inches which many papers devote every day to inveighing against it.

Press delaying tactics: Hacked Off. Yui Mok/PA Wire

The government is actually quite correct to try to make the agreed Charter as safe as possible against legal challenge. But the events of the past couple of days have served only to delay what for the government, or at least for the Tory front bench, must be the evil hour when the Privy Council considers and then, almost certainly, accepts the agreed Charter. At this point the bulk of the press will undoubtedly refuse to engage with the system of self-regulation which the Charter establishes, and insist on pressing on with the establishment of the so-called Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).

This is anything but independent, wholly non-compliant with the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, and even less complainant-friendly than the utterly futile and comprehensively discredited Press Complaints Commission.

Time for a firm hand

The unfortunate Maria Miller, herself the victim of considerable monstering by the press in an attempt to dissuade her from implementing Leveson’s recommendations, said on several occasions on Tuesday afternoon that she wanted to arrive at a Charter that was acceptable both to the press and to the public. But this is simply cloud cuckoo land.

Just as there is a vast gulf between the PressBof Charter and the agreed Charter (far greater than is suggested by proponents, in both the press and parliament, of a rapprochement between the two sides) so there is a yawning chasm between what most of the public and the majority of the press wants to see from a system of self-regulation.

Indeed, there is a strand of public opinion which would like to see the press curtailed in ways which defenders of press freedom (in the true sense of the phrase, as opposed to the debased notion trotted out daily by most papers) would actually find quite unacceptable.

Thus at some point the government will simply have to insist that the will of parliament, as expressed on March 18, is actually put into effect. In other words, they’re going to have actually to govern, whether or not the press likes the result. Some of the papers they are up against are the self-same ones which, in the 1970s, were constantly asking “Who governs Britain?” when members of trade unions flexed their industrial muscles. Those who want an effectively self-regulated press need to be posing that question right now.