Editorial: Only a free press is democratic

Press regulation should be overseen by the courts, not by a state-appointed body
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The Independent Online

Now that the dust has cleared, we can see the battle lines, and a depressing sight they are. Although every combatant with any public-relations training starts by saying that we must not lose sight of the victims of press excesses, that is precisely what has happened. We have lost sight, too, of the important questions of the concentration of media ownership and of the trade-offs between the commercial interests of corporations such as Rupert Murdoch's and the political support of its newspapers.

Instead, we find that the lines have been drawn up on either side of the Rubicon, a nondescript stream that has assumed huge symbolic significance. The whole of the Leveson inquiry, its months of hearings, hundreds of witnesses and revelatory emails and texts, seems to have come down to one question: legislation or no legislation? On either side of this narrow divide, the two camps have retreated into defensive positions, and the idea that politicians and the newspapers might have a responsibility to ensure that the result is better journalism is in danger of being lost.

No doubt some newspapers are buoyed by the Prime Minister's late and expedient conversion to the principle of a free press. But they would be wrong to conclude from this that they can get away with a renamed and reconstituted Press Complaints Commission and self-regulation as usual.

Let us be blunt. Lord Justice Leveson did as good a job as could be done of seeking to correct historic misdeeds. He hardly touched on the "culture, practices and ethics" of journalism in the internet world, which were pointed up so strikingly by the crisis at the BBC over the misidentification of a Conservative peer as a paedophile. But that is no excuse for giving up the attempt to sort out the newspapers' part of the media world.

In sorting it out, we should be clear that the victims, however much we sympathise with them, do not have a veto. The law of the land cannot be decided by those who have suffered from the most extreme crimes. On that basis we would probably bring back hanging. And in this case, anyway, we believe that the victims can secure all the protections they seek for people in their position without the "statutory underpinning" that has become the battle line.

The Independent on Sunday believes that, if other newspapers are prepared to engage honestly and urgently with the task of a total overhaul of press regulation, it can be done without the need for a new law to give any arm of government a role. We urge the victims and others campaigning for statutory regulation to listen not to David Cameron, whose motives are suspect, but to Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty and an "assessor" for the Leveson inquiry, who dissented from the judge's conclusions in a little-noticed footnote on page 1,775. She says that press regulation should be overseen by the courts rather than by a government-appointed body such as Ofcom.

Unlike Harriet Harman, who was once legal officer to Liberty when it was called the National Council for Civil Liberties, Ms Chakrabarti understands how undesirable it would be to cross the Rubicon of state regulation.

Whatever the Prime Minister's motives, we hope that the press takes the chance that he offers to assemble – quickly – a system of regulation that would command the confidence of the general public. It can and must be done.