It is an ugly spectacle: a Cabinet minister being pushed around in public by a powerful and unscrupulous vested interest. But that seems to be what is happening to Maria Miller, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport – and she is not putting up much of a fight.
On Thursday she announced that she would give precedence to the wishes of PressBoF, an organisation of newspaper bosses roundly condemned in the Leveson Report, over the wishes of every single party in our elected Parliament, as expressed in a formal motion on 18 March.
In consequence an insultingly half-baked and cynically framed PressBoF draft Royal Charter on press self-regulation is now to be considered by the Privy Council ahead of the version that Parliament told Miller to submit to the council in May.
Her excuse? ‘Government has also taken advice from Counsel to ensure the procedure it follows is robust.’ Embarrassingly, she also had to admit that after more than three months her department had still not managed to check and confirm the final text of Parliament’s charter.
In the great tradition, we cannot be told what legal advice she is acting on, but the very idea that a body as discredited and self-interested as PressBoF can place on hold a settled government policy is a striking one. And the idea that it can stall a policy approved without dissent by the House of Commons and based on the recommendations of a duly constituted public inquiry is surely an affront to our democracy.
Look at the PressBoF draft: it would hardly be more obvious that it was a wrecking device if they had written the words ‘Wrecking Device’ at the top. There are six criteria for royal charter approval and it doesn’t come within a mile of any of them. Nor did PressBoF bother to append the supporting information required.
And look at PressBoF’s record. It always claimed that its job was simply to fund the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), but Lord Justice Leveson, after careful consideration, found that it had starved the PCC of funds so that it could not fulfil even its limited remit.
And the judge went further, laying bare the truth that PressBoF enjoyed such powers over the PCC that in practice it ran the so-called regulator. It followed that PressBoF had responsibility for the PCC’s failure, and also for the years of cynical cover-ups of that failure.
If a juvenile delinquent applied for the post of Lord Chief Justice it would scarcely be a more brazen and inappropriate manoeuvre than this PressBoF charter application. It is an insult to our courts for Maria Miller to imply that they might take seriously any legal complaint by PressBoF over its rejection.
No doubt the newspaper groups that run PressBoF – the Mail, the Telegraph and the Murdoch papers – are pleased with Miller’s decision. That decision follows – but I’m sure has nothing whatever to do with – a campaign of personal abuse and intimidation against her by those very same papers. The delay gives them a few more weeks to make mischief.
But the delay also takes us nearer to the trial in September of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and others associated with the newly renamed News UK, on charges including phone hacking and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. How will these newspapers deal with that? Perhaps, in line with another great tradition, they will pretend to their readers that it is not happening.
And in the meantime we have a fine example of the ethical standards of the kind of people behind PressBoF, the kind of people who tell us they are fit to run their own self-regulator. Listen to this recording of Rupert Murdoch speaking to his own staff in London – remarks starkly in contrast with his public pronouncements at the time. And please note in particular Murdoch’s ugly promise to ‘hit back‘ one day.
They regret nothing, and they will never change voluntarily.
Brian Cathcart is Executive Director of Hacked Off.