It seems appropriate that the week before the ball will start rolling again on the implementation of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations, a story in The Daily Mail re-ignites debate about the behaviour and ethics of the British press.
Once again politicians, pundits, activists and academics are arguing about how far the press should be allowed to go as they debate whether or not the Mail was right to run the story on Ed Miliband’s father. We had diverging examples within LSE Media Policy Project team, with Charlie Beckett saying the Mail was right – though perhaps stupid – and Bart Cammaerts arguing that it was definitely wrong. But will any movement we might see in the coming weeks to implement Leveson’s recommendations help to resolve that one?
After a long summer of silence, the Privy Council is due to make a decision on the Royal Charter requested by the PressBoF for a new press regulator on 9 October. David Cameron confirmed in a letter to the victims of phone hacking that he did not support the PressBoF’s proposal, so an approval seems unlikely. As has been pointed out, a refusal of the PressBoF’s charter does not mean that the Privy Council will turn around and approve the cross-party Royal Charter instead. Nevertheless the Government is likely to feel that decisive action of some kind is necessary after such long delays, and to draw some poison from what is may be another long open season of embarrassing press-politician revelations.
As the Privy Council is deciding, Leveson will be appearing before a select committee on the Inquiries Act of 2005, and the following day at 10:30 he will be testifying before the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee on the issue of press regulation. This is the fourth evidence session of the House’s own inquiry into press regulation. But Leveson’s parliamentary appearances are probably not putting pressure on the Government to grasp the nettle as much as the upcoming criminal trials of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. These are scheduled to start on 28 October, and are likely to unearth more salacious scandal uncomfortably close to Cameron and his cabinet.
The issue of media plurality, also pointed out as a problem in Leveson’s Report, has been kicked into the long grass of policy reviews by the Government. Parliament, however seems to be pushing the issue harder. On the afternoon of 8 October the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications will be hearing from Roy Greenslade and media journalist Steve Hewlitt. They will be followed that day by CEOs from ITN and The Press Association and in the next two weeks the committee will also hear from Professor Martin Cave, Shadow Culture Minister Harriet Harman and Reuters Editor Sir Martin Evans among others. Will Harriet Harman re-iterate her call for cross-party action on media ownership, or perhaps even come out with a stronger challenge to the Government?
DCMS’s own consultation on media plurality and ownership closes on 22 October. If the Communications Review process is anything to go on, a response to that might take quite some time. Nevertheless with the Select Committee planning to hear evidence throughout the autumn it seems media plurality will stay on the agenda until the holidays.
Some commentators have sensed more than coincidence in the timing of the Mail attack: seeing the Mail’s action as a repeat of its infamous 15 November 2012 hatchet job on the Leveson team just prior to publication. One potential danger of the current kerfuffle is that it would enable some to present any regulatory solution as Ed Miliband’s personal revenge.
But such a claim, however much sections of the press promote it, would ring hollow. Neither the cross-party charter, nor, of course the PressBof Charter would offer any new tools for a politician such as the Leader of the Opposition, or even the Prime Minister. Ed Miliband might have a case of unwarranted intrusion into grief under the current code of the press complaints commission. He preferred the court of public opinion. Under a reformed system as envisaged by Leveson the options would remain, basically, the same. The Press will be free to make mistakes, just as the Mail undoubtedly did last week.
The dictum “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is often misattributed to Voltaire. Perhaps Ed Miliband should claim it this week.
This post originally appeared on the LSE Media Policy Project Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks