Opinion: Press bosses try to have their cake and eat it – Brian Cathcart

23 12 2013

Sir David NormingtonHaving lost the public argument about press self-regulation, the big newspaper companies are now trying to get their way by other means. Letters published online show that over the past month press bosses have tried to strong-arm Sir David Normington the official responsible for the first step in appointing the Royal Charter body that will inspect future press self-regulators.

Leading this shabby exercise has been David Newell, who is director of both the Newspaper Publishers’ Association, the club of big firms dominated by the Murdoch, Mail and Telegraph papers, and the Newspaper Society, which claims to represent the interests of the regional and local press.

Newell has written two long letters attempting to cast doubt on the legal authority of Sir David Normington, the Commissioner for Public Appointments (CPA), to act under the Royal Charter. The first letter alleged:

  • that the CPA’s involvement with the Charter represented ‘government control’ of the process;
  • that it would mean the CPA was acting beyond his legal powers;
  • that the CPA had covered this up.

Newell also demanded answers to no fewer than 19 questions, ending with what appears to be a hint to the CPA that he might face legal challenge over these matters: ‘Will you be publishing any legal advice which you receive?’

Sir David Normington wrote back, calmly pointing out that the entire process was above board and in keeping with his routine function of making sure that public appointments are fair and free of political patronage.

He also pointed out that the newspaper body PressBoF (of which Newell is a senior member, and which was condemned on many counts in the Leveson Report) had applied for its own royal charter only months ago in terms which would have required the CPA to do the same things that the real Royal Charter asks. In other words, though he was too polite to say so in terms, the CPA exposed Newell’s complaints as outright hypocrisy.

Unabashed, Newell came back, again asserting that the CPA was in danger of acting beyond his powers and repeating a demand for information about his funding. This the CPA was able to deal with easily .

All of this expensive legal guerrilla activity is proof of the desperate desire of Newell and his PressBoF friends to obstruct the Royal Charter by any means they can find. So, just as newspaper editors squeal about threats to freedom of speech while refusing to publish any opinions on this but their own, Newell does not think twice about challenging the authority of the CPA to do a job which he knows PressBoF itself envisaged the same CPA would do.

In fact Newell’s hypocrisy is even more flagrant, for PressBoF clearly still wants him to do that job, since it is about to go back to court to seek permission to appeal against the decision not allow it to appeal against the rejection of its own non-Leveson charter scheme.

Of course, just like IPSO, PressBoF’s scheme for another toothless poodle to replace the PCC mark 2, the PressBoF draft charter would throw open the door to political interference over press self-regulation. Where the real Royal Charter bans involvement by serving politicians, PressBoF’s scheme always allow a role for peers such as Lord Black and Lord Hunt – active party politicians – to hold powerful positions.

Brian Cathcart is the Executive Director of Hacked Off


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