Fudge on press regulation

31st Mar 2013

The latest attempt to regulate the excesses of the press is again set to end in chaos. The agreement between the main political parties earlier this month is nothing but another fudge in the face of hostility from the newspaper industry that is likely to be another failure. The main newspapers will not sign up to the new regulators. The convoluted problem is not in the law but in the culture of the press, which has yet to show any sign of remorse for its behaviour.

Phone hacking was illegal before Prime Minister, David Cameron, set up the Leveson inquiry to examine the culture, practice and ethics of newspapers. It remains illegal.

The agreed new Royal Charter may look good on paper but it is far from a guarantee that the press will be less reckless, or intrusive. It could prove to be unworkable with the possibility of some newspapers like the Sun, Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph boycotting the new system that requires the consent of the majority to become a recognised authority. The only disincentives not to join are the threat of exemplary financial penalties and public opinion.

The main argument between political parties was focused on whether a new independent self-regulatory body should be underpinned by legislation as recommended by Leveson. The result was an unhealthy compromise. In the middle, Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, insisted “a middle way” had been forged to establishing a independent watchdog able to protect the freedom of the press while serving the British public.

The Leveson inquiry was also about other vital issues that appear to have been ignored – the relationships between the press and politicians, between the press and the police and about data protection. Leveson did not deal with unhealthy concentration of ownership and control of the press, and plurality as the terms of reference were given the Cameron. The new Charter does not deal with this too. There is also inadequacy of the Press Code of Practice in dealing with complaints surrounding inflammatory, discriminatory and inaccurate, including on reports about Islam and Muslims.

The Royal Charter will cover news-based websites but not broadcasters’ websites. It not clear whether it covers bloggers, tweeters and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and small publishers of special interest and trade titles.

The Charter allows third party complaints, which affect Muslims the most, except brought on clearly frivolous or vexatious grounds.

The Royal Charter does seem to tick some of the right boxes but as in the past, there is a distinct failure to enforce regulation. It cannot be left to the press to decide on its own self-regulation which has always proved to be a recipe for serial misconduct that led to new heights, with phone hacking, computer intrusion, harassment, spying and bullying.

Newspapers need to put their own house in order and politicians need to show a determination to ensure there is a genuinely independent and effective system. It has to be inclusive and transparent and not another fudge.


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