Maria Miller, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has attacked Hacked Off in Parliament. She did not mince her words. In her view we are ‘quite a destructive force’, ‘deeply unhelpful’ and we ‘created a great deal of bad will’.
What was our crime? It happened last spring. Hacked Off opposed a draft Royal Charter on press self-regulation that she and her colleagues secretly negotiated on behalf of the Conservative party, with the managements and proprietors of the biggest national newspaper groups. This draft, as we made clear in public at the time, involved a total surrender to the worst-offending parts of the press, and the sweeping abandonment of the Leveson recommendations.
We were not alone in opposing it. Many members of her own party did so, as did her government partners the Liberal Democrats, as did the Labour party, as did all of the leading victims of press abuses, as did almost the whole of the House of Lords.
We will accept our share of responsibility gladly: if anything we did contributed to the destruction of that draft Charter, if it proved unhelpful to the aims of the press proprietors, and if it caused them ‘bad will’, we happily plead guilty.
Mrs Miller’s complaint is a very strange one, because after abandoning that disgraceful draft last spring she went on to share in a historic cross-party agreement on a different Royal Charter, the one granted on 30 October. This was endorsed in the House of Commons last March not only by all three big parties, but by every single party present.
Here is what Mrs Miller’s boss, David Cameron, said when putting that Charter to Parliament:
‘What happened to the Dowlers, the McCanns, Christopher Jefferies and many other innocent people who had never sought the limelight was utterly despicable. It is right that we put in place a new system of press regulation to ensure that such appalling acts can never happen again. We should do that without further delay. The Royal Charter, which I would like us to take note of now, will help do exactly that.’
And here is what Mrs Miller said herself, speaking of the Charter to MPs a month later:
‘The Royal Charter in front of you today, Mr Chairman, is the result of nearly four months of discussion with victims’ representatives, expert advice, discussion with the industry and negotiation between the three main political parties. This will mean a strong new system of self-regulation of the press with £1 million fines, prominent apologies, free access to arbitration and a tough Code.’
If we had been destructive and unhelpful, and if we had hijacked government business and caused bad will, neither she nor the Prime Minister was complaining of it back then. In fact they seemed to be proud – as they had every right to be – that they were taking a historic step to protect ordinary people from abuses while safeguarding freedom of expression.
What was Hacked Off’s role in all of this, you may be wondering? After the Leveson Report we drafted, published and consulted upon a draft Bill to implement his recommendations, following his wording as closely as possible. When the politicians decided to set up the Leveson ‘recognition body’ by Royal Charter rather than legislation, we made clear that our draft could be adapted for that purpose.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, were consulting intensively with the press proprietors and editors and last February produced a draft Charter that made dozens of concessions. It would have produced a self-regulation system that left the newspapers no more accountable for their errors and wrongdoings than they have been under the present, totally discredited Press Complaints Commission.
On behalf of the 175,000 people who signed our petition for implementation of the Leveson recommendations, and on behalf of the many victims of abuses for whom we speak (who were unanimous in their horror at the Tory draft) we opposed this. So did many Tory MPs. So did Labour and the LibDems, who adopted – and published on 15th March – instead a draft Charter that borrowed heavily, but also departed in important ways, from the Hacked Off draft Bill.
Over the weekend of March 16-17, with no involvement whatever from Hacked Off, the three big parties reached agreement on a draft. On the evening of March 17 we were asked our view on this draft and we said we would not oppose it.
Why were we, a small campaigning group, asked for our view? Because all three main party leaders had by then promised to seek the views of victims of press abuses before acting. Here is what David Cameron said under oath to the Leveson Inquiry on June 14th 2012:
“I will never forget meeting with the Dowler family in Downing Street to run through the terms of this Inquiry with them and to hear what they had been through and how it had redoubled, trebled the pain and agony they’d been through over losing Milly. I’ll never forget that, and that’s the test of all this. It’s not: do the politicians or the press feel happy with what we get? It’s: are we really protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves by this process. That’s what the test is…”
When we responded that Sunday evening in March to the invitation to a meeting where we could hear the details of the draft and give a response on behalf of victims, the Conservative minister Oliver Letwin was present. Nobody made him attend, and if he thought our involvement destructive and unhelpful he did not say so then or afterwards. As it happens, we said that the victims would not object to the draft, and that we hoped the numerous concessions to the press that it contained would be enough to persuade editors and proprietors to take the same view.
We know now that Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre and the other press bosses are continuing to ignore the views of Lord Justice Leveson, of the victims, of all parties in Parliament, of the public (as expressed in many opinion polls) and of leading figures in the world of free expression.
Mrs Miller should ask herself who in all of this is really being destructive and unhelpful.
Brian Cathcart is the Executive Director of Hacked Off