Hacked Off has acquired a letter that vividly shows newspaper bosses giving orders to government ministers behind the scenes, just weeks after the Leveson Report declared that such secret manipulation damaged the interests of the public.
And true to form ministers have since done everything they were told to, by deleting from their royal charter plan all the aspects of the Leveson recommendations that the press industry did not like.
The letter was from Peter Wright, ‘editor emeritus’ at the publishers of the Daily Mail, to Oliver Letwin, the Downing Street policy minister behind the Tories’ plan for delivering Leveson by use of royal charter.
It shows Wright, on behalf of the press industry, laying out to Letwin a list of ‘red lines’ on Leveson – elements of the proposed charter and of the judge’s recommendations that the press industry found unacceptable.
Letwin caved in on almost every point. Here are four:
- Wright said that the press had a ‘fundamental’ difficulty about underpinning the charter with statute. Letwin dropped the statute.
- Wright said it was ‘highly desirable’ that press interests be represented on the charter body. Letwin altered the charter to give the press a big say in who ran it.
- Wright insisted (contrary to Leveson) that the industry should have complete control its own code of conduct. Letwin conceded this.
- Wright said the industry must be able to pick and choose which complaints would be dealt with by its regulator. Letwin allowed this.
Wright sent his letter on 4 January 2013. It was not made public, nor did Letwin consult the public to seek their views, but a month later the minister issued a revised charter that gave the press virtually everything it asked for.
In a meeting with Hacked Off he was asked about each of the many changes made since his first draft on 2 January, and he repeatedly acknowledged to us that these had been made ‘in response to representations from the press industry’.
Hacked Off condemns the kowtowing of ministers on three main grounds.
1. Editors are being allowed to ‘fix’ Leveson behind the scenes.
The press raised all these issues at the Leveson inquiry and their views were considered by the judge in his recommendations alongside the views of many others who gave evidence, including many experts and many victims of press abuses. It is wrong that the press should now privately be allowed to rewrite the recommendations in collusion with Conservative ministers.
2. The press is being offered the power to mark its own homework again.
The body the Tories want to establish by royal charter (instead of by a parliamentary Bill as Leveson recommended), is a ‘recognition body’. Its job would be to conduct inspections every three years to ensure that the press self-regulator was fit for purpose, and was not just another Press Complaints Commission. It is self-evident that this body must represent the public interest rigorously and uncompromisingly, to make sure that ordinary people are protected from the kinds of abuses we have seen in the past. Giving the press any power over the recognition panel is like allowing them to inspect themselves.
3. Ministerial secrecy flies in the face of the Leveson recommendations.
Leveson said in his recommendations (numbers 82-4) that it was vital that in responding to his report ministers and politicians should act as openly and transparently as possible. Since then Tory ministers have acted in flagrant breach of those recommendations – for example by failing to publish the Wright letter, or any account of their meetings with editors. Instead they have engaged in back-door negotiations of exactly the kind that Leveson condemned as contrary to the public interest.
Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.