Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Breaking news ... it's another black day for journalism

The UK Press has many problems. But none of them will be solved by yesterday's behind-doors stitch-up, says Mick Hume

The promised showdown between the UK's political leaders over creating a new Press regulator turned out to be a phoney war.

 Whatever differences David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband might have had were ultimately less important than what they shared: an acceptance of the need to curb the freedom of the Press.

The result of their Royal Charter, backed by statute, will be, as all sides agree, the toughest system of Press regulation in the Western world. That is nothing to celebrate. A Press that is already neither free nor open enough will now face even greater constraints.

Leaders of the Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties sat up all Sunday night – along with, inevitably, somebody from Hugh Grant's Hacked Off lobby group – to do a deal over imposing Lord Justice Leveson's proposals via a Royal Charter with a 'dab' of law behind it.

The result of these elitist shenanigans is that Press freedom has effectively been stitched up behind closed doors, by the cliques of politicians, lawyers, judges, 'hackademics' and celebrity crusaders who have dominated affairs since the phone-hacking scandal broke and the Leveson Inquiry was set up in 2011.

As ever, the one group which has no say in deciding what sort of Press is in the 'public interest' is the public itself.

We will be left with statutory regulation of the Press in all but name, a Leveson Law passed not so much through the back door as through the cat-flap.

What will this constitutional mumbo-jumbo mean in practice? Many people have been left unmoved by all the dancing-on-the-head-of-a-parliamentary-pin.

But there will be important consequences for the right to freedom of expression – and the public's right to read, see and hear what it chooses.

There are many dangers in the 'Leveson principles' for policing the Press. For instance, the members of the great and the good who sit on the new regulatory body will be able to demand the rewriting of the journalists' code, accept complaints from third parties and 'representative groups', dictate the publication of front-page apologies and levy fines of up to £1m.

And they will be able to dictate not just to national newspapers, but to anybody publishing opinion or news – such as the online magazine I write for, Spiked.

Signing up to the new regulator will be 'voluntary' – but those who refuse to do so could be subjected to 'exemplary' damages in court. As some of us pointed out at the time of the Leveson report, if that is a 'carrot', it is one shaped like a baseball bat with a nail banged through the end.

It amounts to a form of indirect licensing of the Press. The Prime Minister's notion that a Royal Charter imposed by the Privy Council is somehow a more liberal measure than statutory regulation makes a nonsense of the historic struggle for a free Press, where people went to the Tower and the gallows to end the system of Crown licensing of the Press enforced by the Privy Council and the Star Chamber.

The overall consequence will not, of course, be crude political censorship. A more real, but intangible threat is that, under the shadow of state-backed regulation, we will see a reinforcing of the culture of you-can't-say-that. The prospect is that we are left with a tamer, more timid and conformist Press, 'ethically cleansed' to suit the tastes of the Leveson crusaders who deem 'popular' to be a dirty word.

At the Society of Editors conference in Belfast last November, the investigations editor of one tabloid newspaper talked about an "ice age" of investigative journalism under such pressures as the 2010 Bribery Act, which makes it illegal to pay whistleblowers for information and would have scuppered many great stories of the past.

That is even before the new Royally-approved regulator arrives to whip the Press into line. The political leaders now insist that their Royal Charter poses no threat to 'proper' public interest journalism, such as the investigation into News of the World phone-hacking – that is, journalism which suits their taste.

But it should not be up to lords, lobbyists, politicians, or privy councillors to decide what a free Press can publish. Nobody has to be as pious as Hugh Grant to qualify for freedom of expression.

The great strength of the UK newspaper Press has been as a trouble-making, raucous and unruly mess. It has many problems, but none of them will be solved by this stitch-up that can only make matters worse.

The high-profile victims of phone-hacking have been prominent in the media again this week, supposedly to demonstrate the moral case for tough regulation.

But what about the moral case for greater freedom of expression and of the Press as the bedrock liberty of a civilised society?

The fact that some might abuse that freedom is no excuse to allow the authorities to encroach upon it and create a more unfree Press by Appointment to the Crown.

A Press that is already neither free nor open enough will now face even greater constraints.

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