The people who run our largest newspaper groups are telling us that they are above the law, above the verdicts of public inquiries and above the will of parliament. They don’t care what the public thinks and they don’t give a fig for the views of the people whose lives they have been caught trying to wreck.
Found guilty of “wreaking havoc” with the lives of innocent people, they have been urged to change the way they regulate themselves so that, for the first time, the interests of the public are put before those of proprietors and editors. That way we might not see a repeat of the long string of recent press outrages.
Their response is to say: “Get stuffed”. Instead of learning from their mistakes and embracing change, they now announce the creation of the Independent Press Standards Organisation and defiantly tell us it will meet the regulatory standards they have chosen to set themselves.
This means they pick and choose what complaints they will handle and they keep the right to bury their grudging corrections on page 94. It means they make the public pay for access to arbitration – assuming they have an arbitration service at all, because in their scheme it’s optional. And it means, fatally, that they pack the boards of regulatory bodies with people that they know will make all key decisions in their interests.
In short, the Independent Press Standards Organisation will be the discredited Press Complaints Commission (PCC) all over again, but this time dressed in new clothes. This conforms fully to the pattern of press conduct over the past 70 years, when every time the public demanded change they obliged by doing something purely – Lord Justice Leveson’s word – “cosmetic”. We don’t have to put up with this any more.
On 18 March all parties in parliament backed a royal charter that embodies the cautious and moderate recommendations on press self-regulation made after exhaustive hearings by the Leveson inquiry. That charter painstakingly shields the press from political interference while offering new protections for the public from unethical press conduct.
Lord Justice Leveson foresaw that some newspaper groups would be reluctant to participate in a system that was actually effective. In his inquiry he was urged by many to make his system compulsory, but this was opposed by newspapers and it was their arguments he listened to. So instead of compulsion he proposed incentives, or sticks and carrots – a series of advantages in law to becoming members of the proper self-regulator, and disadvantages to staying out. Chief of these are advantages for members in the allocation of costs after libel and privacy trials.
All this is in the royal charter of 18 March and the supporting legislation. What needs to happen now is that the charter should receive final approval by the Privy Council and come into action. A charter-compliant self-regulator will then be established, the incentives will come into force and we will see after that whether newspapers hold out. All of this was mapped out under the all-party agreement in parliament – itself a rare and possibly unique phenomenon.
The press bosses behind today’s initiative have a horror of self-regulation they do not control, so they are engaged in relentless and cynical legal manoeuvres to delay the 18 March royal charter. It was supposed to happen in May, and for obscure reasons has still not happened and probably will not happen at the next meeting of the Privy Council on Wednesday. The House of Lords has already expressed its fury at this, and Lord Prescott has resigned from the Privy Council in protest. Here again, the will of parliament and government is being defied by a tiny, wealthy, anti-democratic clique of proven bullies, whose respect for the law of the land is well summed up in Rupert Murdoch’s remarks to Sun journalists, as revealed last week. Do they run the country? The time has come to decide.
Brian Cathcart is the Executive Director of Hacked Off
This piece was first published by Guardian Comment is Free and is reproduced with permission and thanks