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Keeping the press under control

Keeping the press under control

Press freedom is under threat – at least according to recent newspaper reports. What are they so worried about?



Why is this issue surfacing now?

The Government, having for years held off enforcing the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, now feels obliged to come to a decision on the issue. The key recommendation of Lord Justice Leveson’s 2012 report into the ethics of British journalism involved the setting up of an independent body to adjudicate alleged press abuses – such as libelling members of the public and intruding into their privacy. The Government’s dilemma is whether or not to “commence” Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, a controversial measure which has been passed by Parliament but not yet been made active.

What’s so controversial about it?

The potentially ruinous consequences which face any newspaper that will not accept the authority of a “recognised” regulator. Section 40 decrees that newspapers which refuse to do so and which are then taken to court over libel or privacy issues would be liable not only for their own costs, but for the claimant’s too, regardless of the case’s outcome – getting the facts right would be no defence. Section 40 has been widely condemned as an open invitation for anyone criticised by a paper to make a claim against it. Campaign group Index on Censorship says this would make “investigative journalists think twice about publishing a story for fear of being hit with crippling costs”.

So why did Parliament vote to pass it?

There was wide acceptance that the press had run riot in the years preceding Leveson. The inquiry itself had been triggered by the discovery that the press had been hacking people’s mobile phones – notably that of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. Leveson highlighted several appalling cases of press malpractice, including the way Kate and Gerry McCann were repeatedly accused of having killed their missing daughter, Madeleine; and the “monstering” of Christopher Jefferies, the innocent man initially arrested on suspicion of murdering his tenant, Joanna Yeates (a peeping Tom and friend of paedophiles, the Daily Mirror called him). Actress Sienna Miller testified that she was pursued almost daily by as many as 15 photographers – who would verbally abuse or spit at her, to get a “reaction”. Most people agreed with MPs’ complaints that the existing regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, lacked independence and was “toothless”, and that, as Leveson said, a “genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation” was needed.

What did Leveson propose?

A system that would both deal with complaints and have a “fair, quick and inexpensive” arbitration system, operated by a former judge or QC, to handle civil claims, such as invasion of privacy or libel, out of court. It would let ordinary people get access to justice against newspapers with deep pockets, and also stop the rich and powerful intimidating the press by mounting expensive court actions. The problem was how to impose this on the press without violating the principle that the press should never be subject to statutory control.

What did that mean in practice?

In an attempt to square the circle and to avoid the taint of statutory control, newspapers were urged to set up their own self-regulatory system – or systems. But in order to meet the Leveson criteria of being independent of press and political interests, these would need to be certified by the Press Recognition Panel (PRP), a new body set up under an arcane political manoeuvre called a Royal Charter. (PRP members are appointed through a process supposedly independent of both government and news publishers.) Being certified by the PRP is what Section 40 means in saying that a regulator is “recognised”.

How did the industry react?

Badly. The Royal Charter, they argued, was an unparalleled threat to press freedom (see box), the first attempt to regulate the British press by law since 1695. It didn’t help that the Charter was said to have been cooked up over a pizza late at night by MPs and members of Hacked Off, the group which campaigns for press regulation. The industry responded by swiftly forming its own regulator, Ipso (the Independent Press Standards Organisation), chaired by a retired High Court judge. Some 1,500 papers and magazines have now signed up to Ipso – though not The Guardian, Independent, FT, or London Evening Standard, which have set up their own systems of self-regulation. Ipso refuses on principle to seek approval from the PRP: the PRP, in turn, would never certify Ipso, as it isn’t independent of the press. The industry, according to the Media Standards Trust, has influence over all aspects of Ipso; critics say it goes out of its way to avoid rulings against the press. It has also been slow to adopt the arbitration function that Leveson felt was so crucial for avoiding costly legal actions; though it does now run a pilot scheme, with fees for the claimant capped at about £3,000.

So the PRP has no would-be regulators to certify?

Another regulator, Impress, set up last year, has been approved by the PRP. But only some 20 (mostly local) papers and websites have signed up. Most of the press won’t touch it, because the idea of a “state-backed” regulator is anathema, and because Impress gets most of its funding, via a family charity, from Max Mosley – an avowed enemy of the tabloids. (J.K. Rowling and David Sainsbury have contributed too.) Its board members have also criticised the right-wing tabloids.

What is likely to happen now?

Oliver Letwin, the MP instrumental in establishing the Royal Charter, has suggested that if Ipso introduces a decent arbitration system, the Government might withdraw the threat to implement Section 40. That will enrage press reformers, who will see it as neutralising the entire Leveson process. But with the rise of internet “fake news” (an area that Leveson ignored) now at the forefront of public concern, pressure to tackle press harassment has abated. Moreover, the press wields a“megaphone”, in Leveson’s words, with which to influence policy and protect its interests. It has shown in recent weeks that it is not too shy to use it.

The free press vs. the state

Resistance to any sort of dabbling in press freedom by government has a long and proud history. The year 1695, which brought an end to the licensing of newspapers by law in England, is seen as a milestone in the nation’s progress towards freedom. In the US, the First Amendment decrees that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”; and the US press is still unregulated – each news group adhering to its own codes and standards.

Yet there are still, of course, many legal constraints to the way the press operates: in Europe, for example, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights lists national security, the prevention of crime, the protection of health or morals, and protection of the reputation or rights of others. And most democracies, unlike the US, do have voluntary self-regulation systems, usually run by a press council staffed by both journalists and non-journalists. Some are even underpinned by statute. Ireland’s well-regarded Press Council is legally recognised and (whisper it) not that different from the set-up envisaged for the UK under the Press Recognition Panel.

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