15 February 2013 – A free (and pluralist) press is one of the key guarantors of open democracy. An all-powerful press that holds politicians in its thrall is inimical to both freedom and democracy. Post-Leveson it would seem that key players in the press still hold all the cards. Cameron has reneged on his pledge to implement the good Lord’s recommendations, preferring instead Oliver Letwin’s clever wheeze of a Royal Charter, an option favoured by the press faction led by the ‘PCC peers’ Lords Black and Hunt over admirable alternatives like Hacked-Off’s Media Freedom and Regulatory Standards Bill.
The Charter will establish a body to ‘recognise’ whatever system of self-regulation the Black/Hunt faction deem appropriate. This might even involve different bodies for different types of publications – making life just a little more confusing for those who may need to complain about press misbehaviour in the future. We might have one body for magazines, another for the dwindling band of local papers, and another for the nationals. Who knows? Black and Hunt have been conducting their negotiations behind closed doors in time-honoured tradition. As with the election of a new Pope, mere mortals are not supposed to know how such decisions are reached until the white smoke emerges.
While it might be compelling to regard newspaper and media proprietors as oppressive barons riding roughshod over the rights of the common people in pursuit of profit, surely we deserve something more than a medieval solution to the abuses of power revealed during the Leveson inquiry hearings. And it is adding insult to injury that these self-same barons continue to insist that they should decide their own fate. We live in a democracy, chaps, and no-one elected you to your exalted positions.
Even so, the Royal Charter is not quite what it purports to be. Look closely and you see it is far from clear of political influence. The main movers and shakers behind the scenes will be Privy Councillors – those senior politicians of all persuasions who are trusted to advise the monarch – and the Recognition Panel will have to apply to a government minister for funds.
Meanwhile the Black/Hunt faction is fashioning PCC Mark III in camera, and it is possible additional legislation may be needed to ensure that the whole caboodle works properly. The petulance witnessed when editors gave evidence to Leveson is still evident. Despite being caught cheating they still want us to play with their ball, rather than accept that elected representatives have a duty to respond to the anxieties of the electorate and consult openly with the public about what sort of system of redress should be put in place. Remember, no-one has suggested that editors should be told what to publish – merely to agree a procedure for redress when they break their own rules. Why are they so afraid of negotiating with their critics, all of whom favour good journalism and a measure of accountability and transparency? Wouldn’t that be evidence of a mature democracy?
Hiding behind an archaic formulation to protect their ‘so-called’ integrity does not suggest we have a mature democracy, but then nor does Cameron’s cave in.
In the end Leveson’s recommendations, problematic though some remain, are about protecting the public interest in trustworthy and accountable journalism. If it takes legislation to ensure that powerful business, political and police interests do not come before those of the general public, so be it.