It has become something of a received wisdom amongst Fleet Street editors that the Conservatives’ election victory means “Leveson is dead”. Their unalloyed glee has been fuelled by a few Conservative nods and winks during the campaign suggesting that, despite a framework for press self-regulation that has was endorsed by a huge cross-party majority in the last Parliament, a Conservative government would not pursue it. Or, in the words of former Culture Secretary Sajid Javid: “Our job is done as a government. It’s up to the press.”
Certainly, the vicious and relentless assaults on Ed Miliband during the campaign were given an added edge by Labour’s manifesto commitment to see the Leveson process through. A visceral ideological objection amongst the right-wing press was exacerbated by the very clear threat to their entrenched power and commercial self-interest. Jane Martinson in the Guardian quoted a senior editor at one of those newspapers saying: “If Miliband gets in, it will be a disaster. The first thing he’ll do is Leveson.”
Those same newspapers – minus the Guardian, FT and Independent – now use their own megaphones to trumpet the message that they have cleaned up their act, that their new self-regulator IPSO really is independent, and moreover – especially with a majority Conservative government – that it really is “the only show in town”. This is all self-serving guff which deliberately ignores three important facts.
Fact one: IPSO is entirely under the thumb of the same combination of powerful publishers which bankrolled and controlled the PCC, via a shadowy organisation called the Regulatory Funding Company (RFC). As a forensic analysis by the Media Standards Trust revealed, the RFC controls IPSO’s rules, code, investigations and sanctions. IPSO’s independence is an illusion.
IPSO’s chairman Sir Alan Moses – a man of independent mind but no match for the serried ranks of scheming publishers – has made noises about demanding changes, but with no specifics and no timetable. It is a futile task anyway since the then chairman of the RFC Paul Vickers gave away the ballgame when he told the Lords Communications committee: “When Sir Alan says he’s going to put a red line through a whole load of things, he can’t.” IPSO, just like the discredited PCC, is subject to the whims of its corporate masters.
Fact two: IPSO is most certainly not “the only show in town”. Under the Royal Charter framework agreed by all major parties in Parliament, a genuinely independent Press Recognition Panel (PRP) – established without any links to government or political parties – now exists to scrutinise any aspiring self-regulator which wants to take advantage of the incentives offered by recognition. It will, according to its chairman Dr David Wolfe QC, be “open for business” by the Autumn.
Meanwhile, plans for a Charter-compliant regulator are well advanced. The Independent Monitor for the Press (Impress) is the brainchild of former director of English PEN Jonathan Heawood, and could be ready to apply for recognition by the summer. Several online, regional and hyperlocal publishers have expressed an interest in joining a self-regulator which, once recognised, will confer a status of credibility and ethical commitment that is sadly lacking in the reputation of much national journalism. They will also be able to access the benefits of reduced court costs, now enshrined in the 2013 Crime and Courts Act (CCA).
Fact three: As many staunch defenders of fearless reporting recognise – think Harry Evans, Tom Stoppard, Salman Rushdie – there are potentially huge benefits for watchdog journalism because small publishers within a recognised regulator will be protected from the chilling effect of powerful and wealthy bullies who try to intimidate them with threats of bank-busting litigation. New online startups or hyperlocal enterprises intent on exposing local corruption or incompetence will have an invaluable weapon to support proper journalistic scrutiny through the CCA.
So the Leveson framework is up and running. And regardless of this election result, once Impress is recognised, things could start to get uncomfortable for the big newspaper companies as they become vulnerable to heavy court costs by staying outside the recognition system.
But what if those incentives/penalties fail to bite and they stick defiantly to their faux-independent IPSO? The PRP must then deliver a “failure report” to Parliament if “significant” publishers remain outside the system. It will be up to Parliament to decide next steps.
Much will depend at that point – probably around October 2016 – on perceptions of whether anything has really changed. Leveson’s personal view (though not a recommendation) was that some kind of statutory regime involving Ofcom would be an obvious next step. With a wafer thin majority, an opposition united on this issue (including the SNP), a cross-party alliance behind Leveson in the House of Lords, and a significant group of Tory MPs who were sufficiently appalled by press behaviour to threaten rebellion in the last Parliament, there could easily be parliamentary pressure for further action.
However indebted to the anti-Labour press onslaught David Cameron may feel, he will then be faced with an awkward choice: overtly support the publishers’ refusal to be accountable for their own code of ethics – and be accused of pandering yet again to the whims of powerful publishers – or acknowledge that perhaps something more than Leveson’s voluntary, independent system is now required. At that point, even the most defiant publishers might be forced to rethink.
Steven Barnett is Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster. A longer version of this article will appear in the next issue of British Journalism Review, published next week.