On Monday afternoon, my phone began to ring. Word had got round that The Independent had joined with the Guardian and Financial Times to call for a new system of press regulation underpinned by statute. “You realise that this means it will be there for perpetuity, regardless of what happens to newspapers, whatever structural changes they go through?” spluttered one caller. I did, and I assured him that our decision had not been taken lightly.
We’d arrived there, I said, because progress in creating a new regulator, post-Leveson, had been interminably slow. I did not want Leveson. I did not see why a newspaper such as The Independent, that hadn’t hacked, hadn’t bribed a public official, hadn’t bought a paparazzi picture, should be put in the dock alongside others that had done those things and more. Nevertheless, I recognised that journalism had been diminished; that our existing overseer, the Press Complaints Commission, was not up to the task; and that unless Leveson’s recommendations were unreasonable we should live with them.
It was in that belief that I attended breakfast with all the national newspaper editors in The Delaunay restaurant in London soon after the report was published towards the end of last year. The meeting was convivial and workmanlike. One after another, Leveson’s proposals were approved. It was remarkable, and innervating. There were a couple of items we rejected: we believed we should have a say in the drawing up of our own code of conduct; and we were keen to avoid the imposition of statute.
Ever since, private talks between the press and a Prime Minister who said he could deliver a non-statutory formula have sapped that collective confidence. (Although, presumably, there are some who take comfort that every day without a new framework is a day without more stringent oversight.) It’s unlikely that David Cameron, even without the introduction into the process of a Royal Charter, will be able to avoid the need for statute. Labour and the Liberal Democrats will not let him – at the very least they want the charter authorised by legislation. They also wish to ensure that the charter can’t be altered without the approval of two-thirds of Parliament.
My caller on Monday asked if I was happy that we could be stuck with the new watchdog and its powers for ever. I’d rather take that chance than be faced with the realisation that future ministers could adapt the charter whenever they fancied, whenever they took against the press, without consulting MPs first.
We’d like, too, to end the secrecy. It’s got us nowhere. Worse, it’s played into the hands of the press’s most strident critics. We need to move quickly and openly. We need to adhere to The Delaunay.