Any time from this week, we may hear news from the government ministers assigned to solve the conundrum of press regulation. Consultation on one of the many royal charters which have been written since the Leveson Report was published more than six months ago has finished and we may hear how the government hopes to get out of the deep doo-doo it’s walked into.
Or possibly not. Lord Leveson remarks more than once in his report that press regulation is a subject about which politicians may have, or even voice, opinions. When in office, they rapidly conclude that they are determined to do as little as possible. The toughness of the present dilemmas isn’t going to change that.
Any system of press regulation which is “independent” of the state and politicians can’t, by definition, be compulsory and even if it were, news publishing groups increasingly pivoting to become global online publishers could operate from outside British legal jurisdiction. Yet a cross-party majority of MPs want, and have voted for, a tougher system of accountability than the three largest national newspaper publishers will accept.
There are now six versions of Royal Charters in play, all claiming to be to be the best balance between freedom and restraint. These six versions have all been generated despite the claim made for Royal Charters – that they protect the independence of a press regulation system from future political interference – having been strongly challenged. Six charters may just be the start.
For the time being, Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust has set out a timeline (written version here, visual one here) for Leveson anoraks which allows you to see how each version came into being and how they compare with eachother. Moore’s benchmark – how close does this come to Leveson’s recommendations? – won’t be everyone’s, but the texts and the essentials to follow the story are all there. (Moore has a small scoop for hard-core students of the genre in the original text of the government’s first version charter of December 25th.)
Lining up the texts in a row illuminates one thing plainly. The charter on which has just been up for formal consultation is the one designed by three major press groups (the Daily Mail, News International and the Telegraph) and known as the “PressBof charter”. PressBof is the financing body which sustained the old Press Complaints Commission and the body to which this particular charter would be granted. But this charter makes few concessions either to Leveson’s demand for an accountable regulation system or to wishes of the majority in the House of Commons.
Leveson’s key conclusion was that major news publishers could not be held responsible for their actions if the system of regulation was not independent of the industry – and that it had never deserved that description. The PressBof charter, while making a few nods in the direction of change, keeps the power of appointment and finance for the new system where it was before: in the hands of the publishers. The spirit and letter of that charter run directly counter to the spirit and letter of the charter passed by a hefty parliamentary majority a few months ago. The devil is in the detail: Moore has helpfully set out the texts so that they can be seen side by side.
I don’t happen to think that Leveson’s proposal were entirely safe or practical (see here) and I think that the desire for revenge against the popular press in parliament (most particularly in the House of Lords) is a lousy basis for law. But parliament has passed a charter and the government only put it to the vote in March when it became quite clear that the coalition would go down to defeat if it didn’t. So how, one might ask, can the powerful press groups hope to prevail with their own document and its patent wish for a return to the comforting past?
They may hope that the government will concede more ground as the general election of 2015 comes closer. They may hope that legal action may prevent or delay the government charter coming into effect. They may hope that everyone will lose interest. Efforts to tighten regulation have been frightened off in the past. But that was before phone-hacking changed the game – and before the power of print began to wane.