When Lord Justice Leveson reports in November, the thinking is that his recommendations are expected to include “light touch” regulation of the press, underpinned by statute. Such a prospect has already fuelled a torrent of hyperbole and scare-mongering from its opponents, led by most UK newspapers who insist they are able to regulate themselves and that any form of statute is a nail in the heart of democracy. These powerful newspaper noises echo the vested interests of their proprietors, publishers and editors. Some have now formed an alliance, under the dubious title of the Free Speech Network – which, incidentally, has been anything but free about revealing information on its formation, funding and administration.
But this blog is not about the pros and cons of independent regulation, which we wholeheartedly support. It’s about the politics that could undermine it.
David Cameron has said he would implement Leveson’s proposals, unless they are “bonkers”. Harriet Harman and the Lib Dem’s Nick Clegg have stated they are in favour of independent regulation. So far so good, as cross party agreement is crucial because any one party standing up to the press would be singled out for persistent bashing, and we know where that leads! Together, they are a force to be reckoned with.
When it comes to legislation, the ball is of course in the Government’s court. If Cameron opts for continuing self regulation, this may fail, because the Lib Dems and Labour are likely to vote against. If he opts for independent regulation, supported by statute, the big question is: dare he risk further unpopularity with a press already punishing him for setting up Leveson in the first place?
If his party were united on the issue, it would be an easier ride. But this is very far from the case. Leading figures, like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Eric Pickles, have vociferously opposed independent regulation. And Johnson, already the darling of the press, is a serious leadership contender – or so we are constantly told.
All this puts Cameron in an extremely difficult position. With the best will in the world, would he risk further unpopularity and jeopardise his future as party leader? Because that is precisely what will happen if the unforgiving forces of Murdoch, Desmond, The Telegraph, Mail and array of other national, regional and local papers mete out their revenge. With so few owners of so many titles – the underlying problem that Leveson may not address – the self regulation faction have a disproportionately high level of influence on their own governance, as well as everybody else’s.
If Cameron is brave (but possibly politically suicidal) he will implement the Leveson proposals. If he is (characteristically) more interested in self preservation, he will wriggle out of them – making some attempt at saving face, but essentially kicking them into oblivion.
With the press being both self interested and extremely partisan, a fair hearing on the merits of independent regulation is impossible. The BBC (and some papers) will give a more balanced assessment, but they will be mauled by screaming tabloid headlines and sniffy broadsheet editorials. And we should remember that the Savile scandal broke at a very convenient time for some newspapers to sharpen their daggers aimed at the heart of the BBC, already to be “investigated for left wing bias”.
In summary, the PR dice are heavily loaded against a unique opportunity of achieving independent press regulation. The stakes are very high. It may seem far fetched but the end result could be both the continuing charade of self regulation and Boris Johnson in Downing Street.
Cross party unity is a must on press regulation. As is the widespread use of social media in the face of the vested interests of newspaper proprietors and publishers.
If ever there was a time when the individual needed to speak up for regulation independent of the media barons, and give Cameron the backbone, then now is that time.
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