For the first time in British political history, a framework had been agreed – with full cross-party agreement – which would provide for independent, effective and enduring self regulation of the press. That this has been achieved in the face of an immensely, albeit predictably, hostile press gives Steven Barnett reason for cheer.
On 30 October this year, a small group of ministers stood alongside the Queen while she approved a Royal Charter on self-regulation of the press. While both the meeting and the instrument itself might be strange anachronisms for 21st Britain century, they were the culmination of an extraordinary 27 month period. It started with revelations about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone and the prime minister’s announcement of a judicial inquiry led by Lord Justice Leveson, was followed by nine months of extraordinary evidence from editors, politicians and victims of press abuse, continued with Leveson’s four volume 2000 page report with detailed recommendations for a new system of audited self-regulation, which in turn spawned several months of parliamentary wrangling and frequent predictions of failure. Pessimists predicted that Leveson would follow the same inexorable pattern set by the six previous commissions and enquiries into the press: sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Those pessimists – myself included – were wrong. By 31 October Sir Brian Leveson, who said he did not want the product of his year-long investment of time and effort gathering dust on an academic’s bookshelf, should have been a satisfied man. For the first time in British political history, a framework had been agreed – with full cross-party agreement – which would provide for independent, effective and enduring self-regulation of the press. That antiquated Charter mechanism aside – and with several concessions to the industry – the system was essentially as Leveson had envisaged.
Industry reaction on the following day was predictably hostile, as it had been throughout the inquiry. Leveson had rehearsed with astonishing accuracy the routine responses by certain sections of the press to calls for reform: resistance to genuinely independent oversight, personally directed aggression towards those who dared to criticise, concerted political lobbying, and deployment of their own megaphones to warn angrily of imminent threats to press freedom.
Those megaphones were out in force on 31 October. The Daily Mail called the Charter agreement “a judicial farce and a dark day for freedom”, the Sun condemned a process which “has more in common with tyranny than a nation that founded parliamentary government”, and the Times predicted “a Mexican stand-off… in which no authority is recognised.” The Telegraph issued a battle-cry that “The fight goes on for press freedom” while the Mirror, confounding those suspecting a left-wing conspiracy, proclaimed grandly that “The death warrant for press freedom was signed yesterday”. Meanwhile the Daily Express headlined an entirely objective news story (not an editorial): “Outrage as freedom of the press is cast aside after 300 years”.
At the same time, these same publishers – along with the major regional publishing groups – were vigorously promoting their own new regulator the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) as the “toughest regulator anywhere in the developed world” and “fully in line” with the Leveson principles. In fact, as a forensic analysis by the Media Standards Trust has shown (available here), IPSO fails to satisfy 20 out of 38 of Leveson’s recommendations on press self-regulation. Most crucially, it is still controlled by the same publishers who ran and controlled the discredited Press Complaints Commission (“PCC”).
Where does that leave us for 2014? While raging newspaper editorials would have us believe that we are left with, at best, a “stand-off” and at worst an unholy mess, there are at least three reasons to be cheerful. Here is what will happen next.
The Commissioner for Public Appointments, Sir David Normington, will be asked by the Secretary of State to select an independent Appointments Panel which must exclude politicians and press industry members. That body will, in turn, appoint the Chair and members of a Recognition Panel with duties under the Royal Charter to audit press self-regulators and grant “recognition”.
Publishers can then create their own self-regulator with its own board, code and complaints system and arbitration scheme, and submit their body to the Recognition Panel. If it fulfils the broad criteria enshrined in the Royal Charter, it will be formally recognised. Given IPSO’s many failings – not least its manifest lack of independence from the industry and the absence of a cheap arbitration scheme – it is unlikely even to be submitted.
Once a self-regulator has been recognised, the cost benefits of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 are activated, allowing publishers inside the scheme to recoup Court costs even if they lose. Publishers outside any recognised scheme will be liable for the costs of those who bring (reasonable) cases against them, even if they win, on the basis that they will have denied potential plaintiffs easy and inexpensive access to arbitration.
So given the sustained and continuing hostility of major press groups to the whole machinery, why the optimism? First, the major national publishers are not unanimous. Importantly, the Financial Times, the Guardian and Independent newspapers have all reserved their position. Though comparatively small circulation newspapers, their reputational value in bestowing credibility on any new scheme is hugely important. It is difficult to see them supporting an industry self-regulator which is little more than PCC2.
Second a new independent initiative, the “Impress Project” has been launched by a small group of journalists, lawyers and free speech campaigners. Its patron is the celebrated former Sunday Times editor Sir Harry Evans and it is run by Jonathan Heawood, a journalist with impeccable free speech credentials. Though as yet unfunded, it is in its infancy and offers a vehicle not only for the larger publishers who have eschewed IPSO, but for the burgeoning number of publishing start-ups, hyperlocals and other online initiatives who may welcome the kite-marking of authority and integrity which a recognised self-regulator would bring – not to mention the freedom to pursue genuinely hard-hitting investigative journalism without fear of intimidation by wealthy, powerful litigants.
And third a benchmark now exists, within the Royal Charter, for what constitutes ethical journalism and responsible self-regulation. That, in itself, is a major step forward from decades of watching unaccountable press barons repeatedly writing their own rules, breaking them, apologising, and then shamelessly repeating the cycle.
For those who believe passionately in free speech, it serves as a reminder that destroying other people’s lives in pursuit of higher circulation figures is not freedom of the press but naked, self-interested bullying and a gross abuse of power. The new framework sends a message to Fleet Street bullies that Parliament and the public no longer have the stomach for their amoral hounding of ordinary people under the guise of public interest journalism.
This post originally appeared on the British Politics and Policy at the LSE blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks