‘So you’re in favour of the government taking control of newspapers, then?’ Thus Jeremy Paxman to Hugh Grant on Newsnight. And a moment later: ‘But you do want statutory regulation?’ And then again ‘So you would regulate newspapers?’ It is a time-honoured Paxman technique, and no one would argue with his right to employ it. Nor did Grant find it especially difficult to deal with, explaining calmly that there were all sorts of viable options between the two extremes of full-on state regulation and free-for-all.
But the question illustrates something familiar yet surprising about the debate on the future of the press, which is that to some people the very word ‘statutory’ is frightening when it is linked to matters of press regulation. There is a belief that it must always be shorthand for government censorship, or at least a short-cut towards it.
This phobia seems to have infected the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Privacy and Injunctions, which has just reported. And it plays an important part in the arguments put forward by Lord Hunt for his son-of-PCC proposals.
It needs to be overcome, and here are four reasons why:
1. It is a propaganda device for editors and proprietors who don’t want to be accountable to anybody for what they do.
Statutory regulation equals Zimbabwe, if you listen to these arguments. Vladimir Putin likes statutory regulation. Henry VIII liked it too. Statutory regulation is nothing less than handing the press over to the politicians, so that before we know it the front pages will be laid out and the editorials written in 10 Downing Street.
This is hysterical nonsense which underestimates everybody involved. Would the public or Parliament itself allow that to happen? No. Nor is there desire for it: no party leader, no MP and no significant political figure of any kind is asking for it.
Using ‘statutory regulation‘ as a boo-word is a device to prevent reasonable discussion of press reform. As Hugh Grant implied, there may indeed be scary forms of statutory regulation but there are also benign and useful forms, and we are surely capable of choosing the latter over the former.
2. It is perfectly possible for Parliament to pass a law relating to press regulation which gives politicians no power at all over the press.
A short Act, for example, could set up a regulatory body and describe its functions while at the same time specifying that the body will be entirely independent of Parliament and government.
Or an Act could do no more than say that any new self-regulatory body would have to undergo regular external inspections by Ofcom (which is itself independent of government and industry).
Or, as in Ireland, legislation (statute) could have an even more limited role, simply providing a formal recognition of a regulatory arrangement.
And these are just three among many possibilities of which we should have no fear but which we deny ourselves if we are afraid of anything statutory.
3. Any new regulatory regime that does not have the law behind it is likely to be a sham.
If we have learned anything from our history of press crises it is that we cannot trust national newspapers to police themselves. Again and again they have been caught, they have grovelled, they have promised to do better and they have been let off with a warning. And still newspapers act in ways that disgrace journalism and that terrorise and abuse innocent people.
We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something about it, or rather, Lord Justice Leveson has. Two problems that confront him may be best addressed by legislation: trust and compulsion.
If a new regulator is to command trust it must be seen to have authority and not to be a plaything of editors and newspaper proprietors. A formal backing in law can certainly help that.
Equally, law is likely to be necessary if a new body is compel membership, so that proprietors can’t simply walk away when they choose, as Richard Desmond (Daily Express) has done recently and David Sullivan (Daily Sport) did 20 years ago. The editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, appeared to say as much last year.
Further, if a new body is to have teeth, which most people take to mean an ability to impose fines when things go badly wrong, then legal authority will help.
4. We’re not slipping towards a corrupt, undemocratic regime if we gain effective regulation, but we may well be escaping one.
Remember where we are coming from. The country’s biggest private media company was illegally hacking the phones of hundreds, and possibly thousands of people, including Cabinet ministers, people in witness protection and police officers. It had corrupt links with the police, who coincidentally failed to investigate the hacking properly. Its journalists and executives stand accused of a cover-up that includes lying to parliament and destroying evidence of wrongdoing.
This same company was also wining and dining prime ministers and had placed a former executive at the heart of Downing Street, where its bosses could also slip in by the back door for unminuted meetings whenever they chose. Meanwhile senior politicians lived in fear that if they crossed this company their private lives would be investigated and exposed to ridicule or criticism that would be devastating no matter how unfair. The payoff? When News International asked, every legislative door was thrown open for them.
As for the rest of the national press, did they hack too? We still don’t know, but we know that with few exceptions they failed to complain about this state of affairs and they did all they could to conceal the hacking scandal from their readers, making them accessories after the fact.
If all that is not corrupt and undemocratic, what is? We need Leveson and some vigorous policing to ensure we don’t slip back there again. And we need to get over the idea, propagated for such self-serving reasons by much of the press, that passing a law in Parliament, after proper debate, take us straight down the road to Zimbabwe.
Brian Cathcart, a founder of Hacked Off, teaches journalism at Kingston University and tweets at @BrianCathcart