After four months of wrangling, agreement has been reached on press regulation – political agreement, at least. Much hysteria attended the debate. Some in the industry sought to defend the status quo and are still cavilling. Some campaigners would have shackled all newspapers for the excesses of just a few. Meanwhile, politicians slugged it out over whether, or to what extent, the new system should be enshrined in law. Less than a week ago, a deal between the main political parties appeared impossible. That one has now been agreed is, therefore, a positive development. Broadly welcome, too, is the extent to which it produces a system in line with the recommendations from Lord Justice Leveson.
There are those in the press who are already crying foul. After all, the industry will no longer be able to veto appointments to the watchdog; nor will it have a majority on the committee that formulates the industry’s Code of Conduct. Furthermore, the – voluntary – system will penalise organisations that choose not to participate. Not only will they face the prospect of extra-high damages, but even a successful defence might not be enough to avoid paying the other side’s costs. Finally, the new regulator will be able to “direct” newspapers to apologise for any mistakes. Such measures represent a very real shift in the balance of power. So long as they are not scuppered, the ability of the press to act as its own judge and jury is materially broken.
This newspaper laments the necessity of such changes, and we would argue vociferously for a robust fourth estate. With so much evidence of misconduct, however – from the gross illegalities of phone hacking, to the harassment of, say, Kate and Gerry McCann – it is not credible to claim that the existing form of self-regulation was working. A wholly independent watchdog, with real teeth, was required.
But what of the vexed question of legislation? The final outcome is a clever one. The regulatory regime will rest on a Royal Charter, as is already used to oversee, for example, the BBC. There will be statute, but only a single clause – appended to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill – which specifies that the charter can be amended only according to its own provisions, in this case a two-thirds majority of Parliament. Thus, the danger that press supervision would be at the whim of the Privy Council, as is usual with a Royal Charter, is neutered. The result is a regulator that is independent of the press and also, crucially, of ministers.
Politicians on all sides rushed to claim victory yesterday – David Cameron for a deal that avoids a “press law” setting out what the newspapers can and cannot do, and his Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents for a system that has enough legal bite to ensure its effectiveness. Given the behaviour of parts of the press over the past few years, and given the Prime Minister’s decision to appoint a judge to shine so unflinching a light on it, something akin to what was agreed yesterday was always the probable outcome. It is not perfect, from the press perspective. But it could have been worse. Now, all the press must put the posturing and face-saving behind it, accept the new system and move on. Most importantly, we must begin to rebuild public trust in journalism.