This country is now very close to settling a problem that has plagued it for generations. The problem was this: how to protect ordinary citizens from lying, bullying and unjustified intrusion carried out in the name of journalism, while at the same time ensuring that journalists were free to do the job they need to do to sustain our democracy.
The solution is the Royal Charter on press self-regulation, the result of painstaking effort and discussion prompted by a collapse in ethical standards at some British newspapers that has outraged the nation.
The Charter system provides elaborate safeguards for freedom of expression – indeed it will make journalists freer than ever to do their work. At the same time, citizens who believe their rights have been breached, or who say they have been treated unfairly or dishonestly in defiance of the industry’s code of standards, will have a means of redress that is impartial, effective and either cheap or free.
Given that it has taken 70 years to get to this point, the arrangements are surprisingly simple. News publishers will continue to operate their own system of self-regulation but a new and independent body, the Recognition Panel, will check whether this self-regulation is sufficiently independent and effective to provide meaningful protection for the public.
This system has the support of the judge who led a year-long public inquiry, of every single party in Parliament, of the victims of press abuses, of the National Union of Journalists, of well over 100 leaders in the world of free expression and of the overwhelming majority of the public.
Because so much care has been taken to ensure the independence of the Recognition Panel – its members must be totally independent of politicians and of industry – it will take several months to establish.
The job in that time is to persuade the news publishers to engage with it. If they do, they have a historic opportunity to rebuild public trust and to distance themselves from the outrageous behaviour of recent years. It will be good for their business and good for the long-term prospects of journalism.
The Prime Minister made this case in an interview with the Spectator just before Christmas:
‘I believe there’s a great opportunity here to put this difficult and painful issue to bed. If the press set up their regulator I hope, in time, they will make that regulator compliant with – will be able to then seek recognition under – the charter recognition body.‘If that then happens, we’ll have in place a system that I think will settle this issue because we would have achieved what Leveson wanted which is independent self-regulation by the press, but not marking its own homework, having itself checked, and only having the body checked as it were by the charter.’
Sadly, much of the industry has so far failed to grasp this. Proprietors and editors do not acknowledge their collective responsibility for the wrongs committed against people of all kinds. Nor do they recognise the safeguards and merits of the Charter system. Instead most of them indulge in a shameless campaign to discredit those who advocate reform, while at the same time portraying themselves as heroic martyrs in the cause of ‘press freedom’.
Can they simply raise two fingers to change? The biggest newspaper companies clearly believe they can, but this is a delusion.
They are setting up a self-regulator of their own which, as presently designed, spectacularly fails to meet the basic standards that were set out in Lord Justice Leveson’s Report and that will be required by the Recognition Panel. Instead it preserves most of the faults of the old, discredited Press Complaints Commission, and in some cases makes them worse. The position appears to be that they will operate this IPSO system in defiance of the public, Parliament and the Inquiry report.
What they have not yet grasped or, if they have, what they hope no one else will realise, is that IPSO would also preserve and protect many of the kinds of wrongdoing that made the Leveson Inquiry necessary, meaning that it would inevitably open the door to more cruelty, more outrages and, before very long, a fresh crisis of public trust. IPSO is not only an extraordinarily nasty idea, but also a reckless one. And because it will never command public trust, it will fail.
Can the news publishers be forced to embrace the Royal Charter? No. It is voluntary. All that they can be forced to do – and Lord Justice Leveson believed that this would be enough – is to see the huge advantages of participation.
That is why David Cameron said:
‘Now, if you choose to set up your self-regulator but say “we’re not going to seek recognition”, that is your choice. Personally I think that is a mistake because you’re missing the opportunity to settle this and you’re risking that some future, less liberal, less enlightened government at the time of the next press crisis will hitch you with some hideous statutory regulation which I prevented.’
Newspapers affected shock at those last remarks and claimed the prime minister was threatening censorship. No. He was simply pointing out that if news publishers reject a moderate solution and deliberately choose a path that leads to future outrages against the public, the consequence is likely to be a solution that is less moderate. That is the sort of logic that newspaper editors and leader writers routinely promote.
As 2014 begins, David Cameron’s remarks are a timely and powerful reminder to the industry and the country of the simple facts about press self-regulation. (If you missed them, it might be because the Spectator deliberately omitted them from its big pre-Christmas edition, only slipping them out in a blog on Boxing Day. So much for that magazine’s commitment to open debate.)
And if the months now pass and most newspapers do not engage with the Charter system, what will happen? One answer is already given above: they face further disgrace and outrage if they rely on IPSO. The other answer is this: they will face significant competitive disadvantages compared with publishers who do engage.
Built into the Charter system are incentives relating to court costs: participating publishers are rewarded for giving the public access to justice, while non-participating publishers face disadvantages. Again, Lord Justice Leveson believed these sticks and carrots would make a difference. If it comes to it, they must be given their chance to operate.
Finally, it is sometimes suggested that all the editors and proprietors need to do is to wait until the next general election comes close and they will be able to bully politicians into burying the Charter. If Rupert Murdoch and his friends really believe that, the prime minister’s words suggest that they should not count on him.
Brian Cathcart is the Executive Director of Hacked Off
This post was originally published on Huffington Post and is reproduced with the permission of the author.