Where now for press reform?

Posted by Dr John Jewell

To nobody’s great surprise the proposals for a new newspaper watchdog , forwarded by the major newspaper and magazine publishers in the wake of the Leveson report on press standards, has been rejected by a cross party group of MP’s.

On Tuesday 8th October the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, told the Commons that the proposals, which included the creation of Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) to replace the dysfunctional Independent Press Complaints Commission, did not adhere closely enough to the recommendations of Leveson’s report. There were issues over ‘independence and access to arbitration, she said.

All this means that the agreement reached in March between the three main parties and the campaign group Hacked Off will now be prepared for approval by government at a meeting of the privy council on 30 October. In the March agreement, reached in the absence of any representation from the newspaper industry, it was decided that an independent regulator with powers to demand prominent corrections and apologies from UK news publishers and impose £1m fines would be established by royal charter.

Added to this, legislative changes would be needed to ensure the press accept the new regulator – one would be the introduction of a legal threat of exemplary damages if newspapers did not sign up and the second that the Charter be protected by statute guarantee that could only be altered with a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

This is what led to the rival charter submitted by the Newspaper Society, and the Newspaper Publishers Association which was rejected today.

Back in March there was widespread opposition from the press and some politicians to the cross party royal charter and what it saw as the gradual move toward the state control of the press. Peter Oborne, writing in the Telegraph, announced his resignation from the NUJ. He wrote: “If the union represented journalists, as it claimed to do, it would have been up in arms at yesterday’s squalid deal which has granted politicians power over newspapers for the first time in more than 300 years.”

Kevin Maguire writing in the Daily Mirror stated, “the cobbled together blanket law will blow up in Britain’s face. Next time a Prime Minister denounces the censorship of a Mugabe they’ll have a ready retort. Despots will take heart from Britain beating the press.”

Miller’s statement today has elicited a swift and fierce reaction from journalists. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, in an impassioned explanation of what he says the cross party royal charter will mean, writes that his publication has: “opposed every attempted political power grab since 1834 and we will have no part in any government-mandated regulator now. Spectator readers would be appalled if we signed up to some kind of regulatory hierarchy which had politicians at the top. They expect us to be holding these guys to account, not dancing to their tune.”

Sun stalwart, Trevor Kavanagh, said the news came as no surprise and that, ‘it has to be seen as a great victory for the forces of oppression of a free press’ 

In her address Miller stated, “there is no question of undermining the press’s ability to criticise or make judgments – It underpins our democracy and holds us to account. However, this is about ensuring that the public has a fair system of redress through which to challenge those mistakes and errors when necessary.”

The idea of ‘ensuring that the public has a fair system of redress through which to challenge those mistakes and errors when necessary’, is a key point. Leveson recommended in November 2012 that a new regulatory system should provide the public with confidence that their complaints would be seriously dealt with and that the only way to ensure that this system would be effective was through legislation, “which would create a means to ensure the regulation was independent and effective.

This is vital for those who have campaigned for press reform and for whom today’s events are well overdue. Time and again, wrote Steven Barnett the press has promised to reform only to revert back to nefarious practices after being given ‘one more chance’. Now we have, he writes,  the same menacing threats about 300 years of press freedom, the same tired cries about self-interested politicians, the same vacuous and absurd claims to be delivering “the toughest press regulatory regime anywhere in the free world”. Just as they did 20 years ago, immensely powerful and self-interested corporations are masquerading as guardians of the public good.’

So where are we now with press regulation and reform? Miller told the House that 30thOctober was the deadline for the passing of the Charter and that if agreement could not be reached at that stage then the March cross-party deal would go ahead anyway.

The next few days are crucial – talks are scheduled between all parties before the final draft text on Friday. Up until that point the press has opportunity to indicate some acceptance of the charter and willingness to agree to whatever compromises politicians are willing to make. The problem is that does not look likely, as this article has conveyed.

We are heading toward another impasse and a regulatory body which will not be recognised by the press. Indeed, the according to the Guardian, the press industry have made clear they will reject even a revised royal charter. The two biggest groups – Associated Newspapers and News UK, the owners of the Daily Mail and the Sun – see no room for negotiation and have indicated they are unlikely to support a body that would seek recognition from the government’s royal charter.