THE promised showdown between political leaders over 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 press freedom. The result of their Royal Charter will be, as all 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.
Political leaders sat up all night – along with, inevitably, somebody from Hugh Grant’s Hacked Off lobby group – to do a deal over imposing Lord Leveson’s proposals via a Royal Charter with a “dab” of law behind it. The result 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 in 2011. As ever, the one group with no say in deciding what sort of press is in the “public interest” is the public itself.
We will be left with statutory regulation in all but name, a Leveson law passed not so much through the back door as through the cat-flap. But what will this constitutional mumbo-jumbo mean in practice? Many have been left unmoved by 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 instance, the members of the great and good who sit on the new regulatory body will be able to demand the rewriting of the journalists’ code, 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 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. Cameron’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. People went to the Tower 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 in November, the investigations editor of one tabloid talked about an “ice age” of investigative journalism under such pressures as the 2010 Bribery Act. This makes it illegal to pay whistle-blowers 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.
Political leaders now insist that their Royal Charter poses no threat to “proper” public interest journalism like 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 or politicians to decide what a free press can publish. Nobody has to be as pious as Grant to qualify for freedom of expression. The great strength of the UK 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 this week, supposedly to demonstrate the moral case for tough regulation. But what of the moral case for greater freedom of expression and of the press, as the bedrock liberty of a civilised society? That some might abuse that freedom is no excuse to create a more unfree press by Appointment to the Crown.
Mick Hume is author of There is No Such Thing As a Free Press – and we need one more than ever.