Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Press freedom is sacrificed on the altar of cynicism

The PM avoided a Commons defeat over Leveson. But how will history judge those who sacrificed a free Press on the altar of political expediency, asks Bob Satchwell

It was billed as Armageddon for the Press – the day that unruly newspapers would be put to the lash and whipped into line once and for all.

After days of furious in-fighting and public campaigning, Monday dawned with rumours that a last-ditch settlement of the political row over regulation of the Press had been achieved in the early hours.

The London rain poured on the party as if in commentary on the sad shambles that political leaders had created by their instant response last November to the Leveson report on the culture and practices of the Press.

To rewind for a moment: Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry was set up by the prime minister in June 2011 in response to the phone-hacking scandal that was to lead, within days, to the demise of the News of the World – the UK's biggest-selling newspaper.

Prime Minister David Cameron was forced into the hasty inquiry, because the paper's owner, Rupert Murdoch, was, that very week, seeking to buy total control of Sky Television.

The fact that the PM had hired a former editor of the News of the World as his Press adviser simply fuelled the political bloodlust.

We all know the saying about acting in haste. Well, Monday was payback time for the prime minister. The results of the inquiry were predictable from the outset, as was the political reaction.

Messrs Miliband and Clegg played their parts to perfection. They clearly would not have had time to read all 2,000 pages of the Leveson report – let alone inwardly digest it, before pronouncing that the recommendations relating to Press regulation should be adopted in full and at once.

Mr Cameron, to his credit at that point, set himself up for the political punch that was to follow. He suggested that there were dangers in a recommendation that Press regulation should be enforced by law.

His instinct was correct. How could the country's proud 300-year-old legacy of freedom of speech and the freedom of the Press that flows from it be maintained if its activities were restrained by a specific law?

A regulated free Press is an oxymoron. It seemed that, of the three political leaders, only Cameron appreciated that it is simply impossible to have a Press that is both free and controlled.

With the exception of phone-hacking by a small part of the Press, newspapers live by the laws that apply to every citizen. But the Leveson recommendation was different.

Miliband and Clegg were content to go with the flow of the demands of those who had long campaigned for curbs on the Press and, especially, the most popular parts of it. They used the emotion generated by victims of criminal intrusion to support their cause.

The prime minister tried to find a solution that would be acceptable to all sides. In the meantime, the Press had been toiling to create a new and powerful regulatory system to replace the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

This is what Lord Justice Leveson recommended and the planned new self-regulatory body meets all of his recommendations, other than the need for statutory endorsement.

The industry recognises his concerns and accepts that its members must be clearly independent of the Press and politics. The newspapers would be bound by legal contracts to abide by the decision of the new regulator,

They would be men and women of proven ability, standing and determination to see off any attempt to undermine their authority. That is why the Press says there would be no need for further legal back-up.

Now that Mr Cameron has been forced into submission by his opponents, the fear is that any legislation specific to the Press could be amended in years to come to give politicians control over the Press.

Critics laugh that off as impossible. Yet as recently as yesterday, one MP suggested that journalists who wrote something MPs did not like should be banned from reporting Parliament.

Lord Justice Leveson said most of the Press behaved perfectly properly most of the time.

The editor of this newspaper gave evidence and Leveson said that, along with 1,100 other papers published regionally and locally across the United Kingdom, it had nothing to be ashamed of.

He praised them for serving the public.

But, along with hundreds of equally blameless magazines, they will have to pick up the extra costs that would come with proposals under the proposed Royal Charter and a new fast-track legal system, where even if they won a case, they would have to pay the costs.

And that is before the threat of exemplary damages if they decline to join the new politically 'approved' system.

No wonder, then, that editors and their newspapers need some time to study the small print of proposals drawn up by politicians in the middle of the night with the fiercest critics of the Press holding the pen.

That night shift may have solved a parliamentary problem for David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, but while they pat themselves on the back, they should have two thoughts.

First: this saga will not end until the Press has studied all the implications of the Royal Charter plan.

And second: what will history say about the men who were prepared to sacrifice a vital hard-won freedom on the altar of political expediency?

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