The royal charter doesn’t establish any regulation of the press – but the fourth estate still needs urgently to re-establish credibility
If most of the press is to be believed, we have ceased to be a free country. For the Daily Mail last week, the signing of the royal charter on the press was a “judicial farce and a dark day for freedom”. For the Mirror, it was “the death warrant for press freedom”. For the Express, “freedom of the press is cast aside after 300 years”. These judgments may be premature.
The royal charter does not establish any regulation of the press: it will set up a body to certify that any self-regulator created by newspapers is independent. There is no question of any pre-publication censorship: all complaints to any self-regulatory panel will be investigated after the event, in the same way as with the existing Press Complaints Commission.
What is proposed is that the new body should contain an arbitration procedure that will be quicker and more open than the commission, and cheaper and more accessible than the law. It will enforce the PCC editors’ code of practice, promising accuracy and respect for privacy.
No one should be judge in their own cause, a principle of natural justice that is the basis of fairness in any proceeding. The problem of the PCC and its discredited predecessors – which turned a blind eye to evil practices from blagging to voicemail hacking – is that the big newspaper groups have run, funded and suborned it.
Of course, editors do not adjudicate particular complaints against their own newspaper, and there are carefully selected lay people alongside industry professionals. But George Bernard Shaw was right to argue that every profession is a conspiracy against the laity. Newspaper people are no exception. You do not judge Jack harshly, because he may judge you harshly next time.
Self-regulation has always been flawed for exactly these masonic reasons, a point made by virtually every newspaper when self-regulation failed in other trades. Most newspapers were excoriating, for instance, about the failure of the City’s self-regulating bodies to blow the whistle on Robert Maxwell’s plunder of the Mirror pension fund.
According to the newspapers, self-regulation failed in securities trading, banking, construction and many other fields. But it works brilliantly in just one area: newspapers. This inconsistency is ludicrously implausible. No wonder 71% of the public, according to a recent opinion poll, back Leveson-style independence for the regulator.
The real worry of the newspaper barons is that a new regulator would enforce the rules drawn up by the industry itself, which at present are a Potemkin village. If the Sun could not make up fictional stories when accuracy is too boring, time-consuming or costly, how would it make money?
At present, the Sun does not suffer much embarrassment owning up to its fictions, because the PCC tries to “resolve” issues to a point where all but the most persistent complainants capitulate. When there is a PCC ruling against a paper, “due prominence” is too often defined as the bottom of page 28, with a headline so dull that it would normally precipitate a subeditorial sacking.
Lord Leveson could not have been clearer on the surveillance, harassment and intimidation inflicted by the press on the families of Madeleine McCann, Milly Dowler, Sebastian Bowles, Holly Wells, Jessica Chapman and many others. This is nothing to do with exposing evil doings by the powerful, for which there are public interest exemptions. It is about selling more newspapers by destroying the lives of ordinary people. These are folk who do not have the time and resources to hold abusive newspaper power to account.
Nor are these isolated cases. As Leveson found, there is a tabloid culture that runs roughshod over the editors’ code, and the PCC does not bother to draw any lessons from multiple misdemeanours, let alone increase the penalties for repeat offenders.
During Leveson’s sittings, the Mail group was subject to nine complaints of intrusion into personal grief, most of which were “resolved” (for which read the complainants were too catatonic from obfuscation to keep going). Even then, the Mail on Sunday failed to learn, as we know from its sending a reporter to the memorial occasion for Ed Miliband’s uncle. Only openness – clear arbitration judgments – will sort this out.
The British press respects a similar system in the Republic of Ireland, where many produce special editions without editors being led away in chains to Dublin Castle. There may even be benefits. The NGO Transparency International recently asked 114,000 people in 107 countries which of 12 institutions they considered corrupt. In Britain, 69% of respondents said the media were corrupt, higher than any other British institution, and up from 39% three years ago. The fourth estate urgently needs third-party testimonials to re-establish its credibility.
Providing that the Liberal Democrats hold Maria Miller’s cold feet to the fire, my guess is that enough newspapers will set up a self-regulator to meet royal charter standards of independence. Other newspapers will join because the costs of staying out – paying both sides of a libel case, win or lose – will be too high, particularly once lawyers spot the nice new earner. The system will bed down. Everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about.