The Government has launched a public consultation on ‘The Leveson Inquiry and its Implementation’. You might think that when they consult in this way it must be a thorny issue with strong arguments on both sides, but in this case you would be wrong, because one side has no arguments at all.
The consultation concerns two things, whether to launch Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry, looking at press-police corruption, and whether to implement Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which is supposed to provide the teeth for the Leveson regulation reforms.
Official consultation documents are supposed to provide the public with a fair account of the issues but this one doesn’t do that because the government is clearly determined to favour its close friends in the press. Despite their best efforts, however, civil servants have been unable to conceal the abject weakness of the press case.
Limiting ourselves to Section 40 for the moment, let’s look first at the arguments in favour.
Section 40 was part of a carefully balanced package proposed by a senior judge after a public inquiry. It was the subject of a rare and painstaking cross-party consensus and it was designed to give the press a choice: either (a) join a recognised, independent regulator, get the benefits from that and give ordinary people protection from abuse and affordable access to justice, or (b) suffer occasional adverse costs consequences in the courts until you change your mind.
Since nothing has changed since Parliament approved Section 40, and notably since most news publishers have refused to join a recognised regulator while it remains in abeyance, it follows that it should be implemented without delay.
Now, what is the case against Section 40? When you look at the consultation document you see, remarkably, that every one of the press industry arguments presented by the government is either a transparent untruth, a mischievous half-truth, a contrived scare story or an outrageous piece of special pleading. They have no case.
That is a bold claim, but true. Look are the five best cards they have to play.
- ’Press freedom is at stake if Section 40 enters into force.’
No it isn’t. The Royal Charter and the associated post-Leveson measures ensure complete and lasting independence from political interference both for press self-regulators and for the new body that exists to verify whether such regulators meet the basic standards needed to protect the public. The Charter insists that no regulator can have power ‘to prevent the publication of any material, by anyone, at any time’. There is no issue about press freedom.
- ’The press oppose “state-backed” regulation “on principle”.’
They don’t. The Irish press regulation system is enshrined in statute and gives powers to the Minister of Justice – it is thus more ‘state-backed’ than the Charter system. Yet the owners of the Sun, Mail, Express and Mirror all participate willingly. Whatever they say, they clearly do not feel any principle is at stake. Further, it is a bit rich for them to complain about state action when they were the ones who made such action unavoidable by their large-scale wrongdoing and abuse.
The ‘state’ – that is, every single party in our democratically elected House of Commons – responded very cautiously, introducing a voluntary regulation system, with some sticks and carrots to encourage membership, that is as airtight against political interference as is possible under our constitution. Press objections ‘on principle’ are like a road traffic offender objecting to his points penalty ‘on principle’.
- ’Under Section 40, newspapers that lose libel cases will have to pay claimant’s costs.’
This artful half-truth conceals the fact that a paper would only find itself in that position if it refused to join a recognised regulator and so denied the claimant access to justice at low cost. That is because the most exciting thing about Section 40 (newspapers never mention this) is that it will give us all a new right to affordable justice in libel and privacy cases, ending the scandal that only the rich and fortunate can uphold their rights against newspapers. Nor do the papers ever admit that they too would benefit from these lower costs, and that their reporters would gain a new freedom from the kind of litigious bullying practised most notoriously by the late Robert Maxwell. All they have to do is join an independent self-regulator that meets the basic standards set out in the Leveson report.
- ’The Charter regulation system was set up without consulting the press.’
This is a lie. The press were heard exhaustively at the Leveson Inquiry, where what became the Charter system was conceived. They were then fully consulted during cross-party talks on implementing the inquiry recommendations – ministers spoke of ‘prolonged’ discussions and a leading press negotiator said publicly they were ‘intensive’. Many concessions were made to press demands. In reality this complaint relates to a single meeting on 17 March 2013 between ministers and Hacked Off, but it would have been strange if they had been invited to that. The cross-party agreement was complete by then but the parties had to honour a commitment to consult victims of press abuse before putting it to Parliament. Hacked Off represented the victims, who gave their support.
- ’Section 40 shouldn’t happen because most papers haven’t signed up to the Charter system.’
This is patently illogical. Section 40 includes the only (quite modest) form of pressure on news publishers to join a proper self-regulator – the measure to make them pay court costs when they deny people affordable justice. The press case amounts to this: because we are refusing to regulate ourselves properly now, it would be wrong to introduce measures to encourage us to regulate ourselves properly in future. Not only is this a brazen try-on, but it is also a shameless claim to a right of veto over the Charter reforms – they want to overturn by collective boycott a decision by Parliament. Remember, these are the same newspapers that made the Leveson Inquiry necessary by their dreadful conduct, and that were condemned in the report for ‘wreaking havoc in the lives of innocent people’.
In short, the best that the government can do on behalf of its friends in the press in that part of the consultation relating to Section 40 is to advance a string of perverse and transparently dishonest arguments. As for Leveson Part 2, I will look at the arguments there in another blog, but they are certainly no more convincing.
The government and the corporate newspapers can’t win the argument and they can only get away with sinking the Leveson process if we fail to make them face that.