Newspapers are ignoring the reality. Our press will still be free

The reaction of some newspaper executives conveys a lofty sense of power


I continue to read or hear that while we might disapprove of how some newspapers behave, their freedom to do what they want is more important than any other consideration. Now I also read or hear that some newspapers will not comply with parliament’s wish to impose a modest statutory mechanism, one that is dressed up as a Royal Charter. The charter is proposed as an alternative to the voluntary regulatory framework that has proven to be farcically useless.

Newspapers’ original demand for freedom, and their subsequent act of defiance, raise thorny questions. Freedom is not a simple or pure concept. Should the victims of a newspaper’s casual bullying have the freedom to seek some form of very limited protection after publication? Why is the freedom of a newspaper to bully a victim more important? The same complexities applied to the debate around the smoking ban. Smokers screamed about their freedoms being impinged. They did so loudly enough to make some of the cabinet ministers that instigated the ban extremely nervous. But non-smokers that sought the freedom to visit smoke-free pubs and restaurants now celebrate their liberation. The ban freed many people to go out more, will do more for the health of the nation than many other measures, and it did not cost a penny.

Although the debate over newspapers generates more noise than the one around the smoking ban, the consequence of statutory regulation would be less significant. Newspapers would still roam widely. There would still be victims too. At best there would be a little more considered journalism. At worst not much would change at all.

The imperious reaction of some senior print executives to this modest change conveys a lofty sense of semi-detached power. Apparently they will not co-operate with the new arrangement, even if this is the will of parliament. The steering committee representing newspapers declared it was “deeply disappointed” that the Royal Charter was being imposed, even though they had “universally rejected” the proposal in March when it was first unveiled. Well, who do they think they are? And how would they have responded if, say, trade union leaders had refused to comply with constraining laws in the early 1980s after their decade of disruption?

So used to bashing politicians around, some newspapers believe that if those wretched elected figures get involved the free press is dead. In reality the wretched elected politicians are so scared of the non-elected newspapers, or some of them, that they are terrified about what to do next. The imbalance between the disdain with which some newspapers view politicians and the fear politicians have of newspapers is such there will be no great, sinister reversal of roles. Politicians are far too scared to bring about such a reversal if they wanted to, which they do not.

David Cameron is trapped between his desire not to offend some mighty newspaper executives and his wish not to upset some of the most sympathised-with figures in the western world – from the McCanns to various adored celebrities. Such is the continuing might of newspapers that he is siding more with them than the rival, more glittering constituency. I understand why. Newspapers have a role to play for him at the next election. So far Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have stood firm, but they have less to lose in terms of potential media support. In standing firm they are not stamping all over the freedoms of newspapers. In any future arrangement, including one with statutory backing, they will be as far removed from controlling newspapers as they are now.

Once the lawmakers have agreed on a statutory mechanism, they will step back. That would be the end of their role. They move towards even this, limited involvement fearfully, and at such a snail’s pace that it might still never happen. The idea that they will end up telling Paul Dacre how to edit his newspaper is fanciful.

Indeed the row between Ed Miliband and the Daily Mail is instructive. The sequence that unfolded in relation to the Mail’s reporting of Miliband’s father could unfold again in precisely the same way if an external regulator had limited statutory powers. The Mail could patronise their readers with an over-the-top article about how Ralph Miliband hated Britain. The Labour leader would get a right of reply. The newspaper could monster him once more.

Admittedly, the newspapers have one very powerful argument in their favour: that existing laws would have addressed much of the extreme behaviour if they had been properly applied. One of the more extraordinary and still slightly understated dimensions of the hacking saga was the closeness of senior police officers to some journalists. The various court cases involving senior journalists, whatever their outcome, will do more to focus the media, and make sure it stays within the law in the future, than any part of the Leveson inquiry.

No one in the media wants to go through the hell being endured by those former senior journalists awaiting trial. But journalists should also be alert to context. For a long time existing laws were not enforced. The Press Complaints Commission was hopelessly weak. We are where we are, as political leaders often have cause to note when faced with complex decisions.

No doubt sincerely, some editors have misunderstood the motives of the relatively few politicians exercised about the issue. The editor of the Times, John Witherow, told me in an interview at a public event this summer that he thought it was all an act of revenge for the MPs’ expenses saga. He is wrong. A lot of the MPs exposed over their claims left at the last election. Miliband stood out for not claiming even the amount of expenses he was entitled to. This has nothing to do with the expenses’ story. I am afraid in the end it has more to do with the wild misconduct of some newspapers. Most politicians agonise over what to do next rather than take pleasure in imposing even the most limited form of regulatory control.

Another argument from newspapers is that the entire debate is outdated because the internet and Twitter have become more powerful. This is a red herring. If the measure is appropriate it should be applied and done so as extensively as possible. Some of those who have tweeted libellously have discovered that they are, rightly, as vulnerable as newspapers. Anyway, newspapers would still wield considerable influence, more than they realise.

One final powerful case against a statutory mechanism is that the act would be the “start of a slippery slope”. I have just heard a colleague of mine utter these words as I write. I see no evidence to justify such a fear. Look at all the politically hesitant, tentative, fearful comings and goings over a proposal that will not change very much. There will be no push further down a non-existent slope.  The debate about press freedom involves big, emotive, highly-charged themes on both sides. The actual measure being argued over is tiny and might, in a small number of cases, help very occasionally to save some newspapers from themselves.

Twitter: @steverichards14

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m