At Prime Minister’s questions this week Harriet Harman, the Labour deputy leader, raised press regulation with Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister. It is worth reading the full exchange (below) but the upshot, in brief, was agreement that the best way to proceed is cross-party cooperation.
Since then a group of 44 Conservative MPs and peers have written to the Guardian saying that the plans put forward by editors and newspaper proprietors for further self-regulation are ‘destined to fail’ and that the industry’s concerns about statutory underpinning of regulation are unjustified. Parliament, their letter concluded, must not ‘duck the challenge’ of regulatory reform when Lord Justice Leveson reports in the next few weeks.
Judging by their recent public comments, both Harman and Clegg would probably agree with the contents of the letter. Indeed there aren’t many people in this country who would disagree with it, if successive polls are to be believed. The NUJ agrees. And the victims of press abuses who have worked with Hacked Off took a similar view in their letter to David Cameron last month.
Who disagrees? Most of the national newspapers and some of their friends in politics, notably Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Eric Pickles.
What are their arguments? They say, simply, that any regulatory system underpinned by statute in any form is inimical to press freedom, and that what is happening now is an attempt by politicians to gain control of the press, or at least to place us on a slippery slope to state control. Here, for example, is Fraser Nelson of the Spectator making that case.
This is nonsense. Some of our arguments are explained here.
Here are three further points.
- First, the history of the past 60 years shows that, far from wishing to gag the press by regulation, politicians have bent over backwards to give the press every chance to regulate itself, even though this has only led to a catalogue of failure. They can hardly stand back now and do the same again, 20 years after a home secretary told the Commons: ‘This is positively the last chance for the industry to establish an effective non-statutory system of regulation.’ The PCC, like its predecessors, failed because it was cynically designed not to be an effective regulator at all, so if self-regulation is now dead that is because it was killed by press wrongheadedness and not by politicans.
- Second, politicians have recently done the press a series of conspicuous favours, though newspapers are quiet about these. A new defamation bill is passing through parliament (supported, with some qualifications, by Hacked Off) which remedies a number of longstanding press complaints about British libel law. The government, in response to press lobbying, has also curbed the availability of no-win-no-fee arrangements for plaintiffs, making it much harder for ordinary people to sue newspapers. And – again after press lobbying – neither the last government nor the present one has increased the penalties for breaches of the Data Protection Act to a meaningful level, despite pleas to do so from the information commissioner. These are hardly the actions of a political class determined to crush the press.
- Third, the press phobia about statute is irrational in a hundred different ways. It is argued that any statute relating to press regulation is bound to inhibit press freedom. You have to wonder what the likes of Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys, Adam Boulton,Tom Bradby and Nick Robinson think of that. They are all regulated under statute: are they cowed in the presence of ministers? I think they would deny it. Furthermore, the Leveson inquiry itself is underpinned by statute – the 2005 Inquiries Act – and does anyone think that it has been constrained by that from scrutinizing the activities of politicians? On the contrary, the law enabled the inquiry to function in a rigorous and independent fashion, just as statute might enable a press regulator to function in a rigorous and independent fashion.
We want effective regulation that is independent of both the industry and the government. It can be done.
Prime Minister’s questions, November 7.
Lord Justice Leveson will be publishing his report and recommendations soon. The Deputy Prime Minister said that provided those proposals are “proportionate and workable”, the Government should implement them, and the Opposition agree. When Leveson’s report is published, will the Government convene cross-party talks to take it forward? We need a strong, free press, and a proper system to protect people from being, as the Prime Minister said, “thrown to the wolves”.
The Deputy Prime Minister:
I agree with much of what the right hon. and learned Lady says about Leveson. We have not yet seen his proposals and we must wait to see what he comes up with, but if those proposals are workable and proportionate, we should, of course, seek to support them. That is the whole point of the exercise. I also agree that we should work on a cross-party basis where we can. This is a major issue that escapes normal tribal point scoring in party politics, and there are two principles, both of which the right hon. and learned Lady alludes to. First, we must do everything we can to ensure that we maintain a free, raucous and independent press. That is what makes our democracy and the country what it is. Secondly, we must ensure that the vulnerable are protected from abuse by the powerful, which happened on an unacceptable scale on too many occasions. We need to be able to look the parents of Milly Dowler in the eye, and say that, in future, there will be permanently independent forms of recourse, sanction and accountability when things go wrong.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that answer. We must have a press that report the truth without fear or favour. However, after all the evidence that came out during the inquiry, particularly, as he says, from the Dowlers and the McCanns, we simply cannot continue with the status quo, or a press complaints system in which a publication can simply walk away, or a system that is run by the press. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that a version of “business as usual” will simply not do? It would be a dereliction of our duty to allow the Leveson report to be kicked into the long grass.
The Deputy Prime Minister:
I think everybody accepts, whatever their individual views about this matter, that “business as usual” is simply not acceptable. The status quo has failed, and it has failed over and over again. The model of self-regulation that we have seen over the past few years has not worked when things have gone awry. I certainly agree with that premise, and we in Government created the Leveson inquiry to seek out recommendations for change. That is the whole point of the Leveson inquiry.
I look forward to all hon. Members having the opportunity to work together in the public interest to get this right.
Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.