Editors, we hear, are filing one by one through the door of Downing Street, bending the Prime Minister’s ear about royal charters and press regulators. You must do something, they warn him, or there will be an impasse, a stalemate. They are wrong. There is no impasse; there is a process.
Lord Justice Leveson foresaw that some editors and proprietors would stubbornly resist change and he made provision for this. He designed a process that is fully embodied in the Royal Charter and supporting statute that have been agreed by all parties in Parliament. All we need to do now is to show a little patience while it does its work.
The process is this. Very soon, the PressBoF ‘wrecking petition‘ for a Royal Charter will be rejected and soon after that the ‘real’ Royal Charter approved by Parliament on 18 March will be sealed and will become effective. That means that a fully independent Recognition Panel will be established, capable of giving approval to a press self-regulator that would meet specified Leveson standards.
The Mail, Telegraph and Murdoch papers are planning a self-regulator called IPSO, but they have no intention of making it meet those standards or even putting it forward for recognition, because they do not want to be accountable for their actions. Their arrogant line is that we, the public, should like it or lump it: that is the impasse they want us to see.
But IPSO will not be the only game in town. It is inevitable that some group will soon set up a proper self-regulator that will fully comply with the Leveson criteria set out in Parliament’s Royal Charter. And importantly, once that proper self-regulator receives formal recognition from the Panel, the Leveson incentives will be triggered.
There are carrots and sticks. News publishers that join the compliant self-regulator will benefit from wide-ranging protection against court costs in libel, privacy and other civil cases, while those that stay outside – say, as members of IPSO – will not. In fact those outside will actually pay higher court costs.
So members save money and non-members lose money, which means that over time there is a powerful business case for news publishers to participate in a self-regulator that meets the Leveson standards.
And these are not the only incentives. For example, your journalism will enjoy protection from ‘chilling’ by wealthy litigants, your libel insurance costs will fall, and you will be able to show the public, and potential investors in your business, that you conform to basic ethical and governance standards.
And remember, there is no threat to free expression. The whole Leveson regulatory and recognition system is painstakingly shielded from political interference, so this cannot be described as censorship by the back door.
That is the Leveson plan, drawn up after hearing evidence from the press and others in a year-long public inquiry. It is endorsed not only by all parties in Parliament but also overwhelmingly by the public, as now shown in innumerable polls and surveys.
Why is it inevitable that a Leveson-compliant self-regulator will be set up even though major publishers oppose it? Here are a few reasons. First, the benefits are too tempting for all publishers, print and online, to pass up, and you don’t need to be a big publisher to get them. Second, this provides publishers with a chance to rebuild public trust, rather than undermine it as IPSO does. Third, important civil society groups and philanthropists can see the advantages it brings in terms of better redress for wronged members of the public and better protection for democracy. Fourth, the financial benefits for publishers will outweigh the costs of membership. (It’s even possible that a Leveson-compliant self-regulator could be run for profit, as a commercial enterprise.)
So, to repeat, there is no impasse. There is a process by which newspaper publishers are offered big advantages if they participate and are left with higher costs if they don’t. That process should now be left to work. It may take months, but we have waited nearly 70 years for decent press self-regulation so we can surely wait a little longer.
Newspapers have a lot to gain by doing the right thing here. And they have nothing to lose except the right to bully, lie, distort and intrude without accountability.
Professor Brian Cathcart is Executive Director of Hacked Off.