You may be forgiven if it escaped your notice (because once again the corporate press either ignored or misrepresented it), but last week an event of potentially fundamental importance took place in the long dispute over press regulation in this country.
The Commons Media Select Committee announced its position [pdf] on the future of the Leveson process, setting out what it thinks the government ought to do next.
This is important because the long impasse over Leveson implementation has seen the matter pass back into the hands of politicians, and in that context the committee has standing and a record of engagement.
It currently has a six-strong Conservative majority including a Conservative chair (Damian Collins), but its verdict on press regulation is unanimous, meaning that it is also backed by the other five members, four Labour and one SNP. This cross-party status gives it additional authority.
The committee’s recommendations are a resounding slap in the face for the corporate press – titles such as the Mail, Sun, Mirror and Telegraph which mounted a ferocious campaign in recent months to have the Leveson process scrapped in its entirety.
The committee recommends instead that the industry be given a ‘definite deadline’ of one year to bring its self-regulation into line with the standards set out in the 2012 Leveson Inquiry Report. It also declares that Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry, dealing with criminality in the press and the role of the police, should go ahead, albeit with a revised remit to prevent the duplication of any work already done.
Does this mean that these things will now happen? Not necessarily, because the actual decisions rest with the government, but the unanimous opinion of the relevant select committee must carry considerable weight, not only with ministers but across the Commons. It will be difficult for the government to ignore.
And the committee has not only made recommendations that are contrary to what Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre and their allies are demanding, it has also succinctly demolished the case they advanced.
The ‘high-profile campaign by the press’, said the committee, relied on some arguments which were ‘unconvincing and misleading’. The press was claiming that completing the reforms recommended by Leveson (and approved by Parliament in 2013) would ‘chill’ investigative journalism and could close down small local papers, but the committee showed that this was a misrepresentation of the true picture.
Further, the committee stated that it was not satisfied with IPSO, the self-regulator set up by the corporate papers in defiance of the Leveson recommendations. IPSO, it made clear, was not credible in the eyes of the public, had yet to conduct and investigation or impose a fine, and failed to offer compulsory low-cost regulation.
All this will be a bitter pill for the industry and IPSO to swallow. We can expect the corporate papers to fight back in their customary way – by misrepresenting the committee’s conclusions in print and online, by trying to undermine the committee’s standing through personal attacks and the general denigration of Parliament, and by secret lobbying of ministers.
This last will be easy, given the ready access that press chiefs have to government, and given that the special adviser to the minister most concerned, Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, was until very recently a senior journalist at the Sun.
But the 11 members of the committee have proven themselves to be robust in the face of such pressures, and that could be an indicator that other MPs have not have been impressed by scaremongering and threats.
As for Bradley and her ministerial colleagues, they are likely to pronounce on the future of the Leveson process within a few weeks. When they launched their consultation on this matter [pdf] late last year (it is now closed) they declared: ‘This is a government that works for everyone and not just the privileged few.’ We shall soon learn what that means.
Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University London