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Press bullies say ‘get stuffed’ to Leveson and the rule of law – Brian Cathcart

newspapersThe 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

4 Comments

  1. Carol Croft

    Can anyone help me identify who comprises the Privy Council that is due to consider the ‘industry’ Royal Charter today? Norman Tebbit in the House of Lords the other day was very insistent on the difference between privy councillors and the Privy Council when they were debating the government’s response to a question about the progress of press reform. Only thing I know is its not John Prescott.

    • INFORRM

      Regular meetings of the Privy Council – like the one today – consist of the Queen plus four Government ministers. Nick Clegg will be there (he is “Lord President of the Council”) plus three others. The Privy Council does not debate anything – the meetings are short and formal (members remain standing). The Privy Council simply rubberstamps the decision of the Government. It is, in practice, a sub-committee of the Cabinet (but with all kinds of extra powers)

  2. Andrew Scott

    There seems to be an element of path dependence exhibited here. It was reasonable to be calling for Leveson compliance when that possibility was still on the table. By this time, however, it seems obvious that the media groups are not going to sign up to the ‘Hacked Off’-influenced Royal Charter and that IPSO is the only game in town. Hence, constructive engagement with the IPSO project and not (more and more and more) demagoguery would seem to be the way best to serve the interests of the ‘victims’ of media excess.

    • Rights Lawyer

      This is a minority view, even among the press – which is why “IPSO” has been . launched in such a half-hearted way. IPSO is a rehash of the “Hunt/Black” plan which has ineffectiveness designed in. This is, in reality, the last throw of the dice for the Dacre/Black/Murdoch axis. If politicians and the public make it clear that this is unacceptable they will back down.

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