There was a significant move in the wrangling over press regulation this week when the country’s largest newspaper groups agreed to drop their proposal to hold a veto over appointments to the new press regulator. These were the companies that drew up a second charter in response to the three main parties’ Royal Charter, without consulting The Guardian, Financial Times and The Independent.
Once we’d digested their plan, we, along with The Guardian and FT, were concerned it would be seen not to be sufficiently independent, that by retaining a veto they were in effect replicating the existing Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which has been accused of being too close to the industry and has forfeited public confidence.
In his report, Lord Justice Leveson made plain his desire for an independent self-regulator. That was also the clarion call of the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour. My view was that there was no chance of the newspaper groups’ alternative charter gaining wide acceptance if it failed this independence test.
So their concession is a major step in the right direction, one that on the face of it, shows that even those most opposed to Leveson and the Royal Charter recognise the need for change. The veto’s removal helps pave the way for The Independent’s acceptance of the second charter. I still have reservations, but these are relatively minor (I had them as well about the workings of the Royal Charter so this is little different).
What I want to avoid, though, is The Independent being dragged into an all-out press vs politicians battle. I don’t wish this paper’s more positive attitude to the new charter to be used as ammunition in a conflict with Parliament. I believe our readers agree with this stance. We live in a democracy and sometimes decisions are taken with which we disagree but must accept (even if they are struck in the dead of night with Hacked Off members hovering).
As I said to one of the proponents of the second charter this week, imagine if a judicial inquiry was held into the pharmaceuticals industry, say, and all three main parties were in one voice about accepting its recommendations, but then the pharma giants turned round and told them to get lost, what then? The loudest howls of protest would undoubtedly come from those very same newspapers that refused to countenance the Royal Charter and are seeking to implement their own version.
Hopefully, the relinquishing of the veto and our increased warmth towards the new charter will help make resolution that bit nearer. As the discussions continue, I want to put down another marker: it would be grossly unfair if the costs of the new system hurt regional and national publications that had little or nothing to do with the excesses of the past. The principle of polluter pays should be the abiding rule.