How best to supervise the media, while retaining its independence, is no small challenge. But the stalemate that has greeted the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry cannot continue, even so. Such sluggish progress is not only grist to the mill of those that would claim the press has only its own – unscrupulous – interests at heart. It also risks the worst possible outcome: the arbitrary imposition of a regulatory regime with chilling consequences for free speech.
It is for this reason that this newspaper – along with the Financial Times and The Guardian – is calling for a concerted media effort to find a workable solution. That is not to suggest that the crux of the debate is not of vital importance. The Independent would make the case in favour of an active and untrammelled fourth estate as strongly as any. Talk of a new regulator “underpinned by statute” has lost perspective, however. Even reasonable half-way measures are characterised as press freedoms eroded and democratic principles laid waste.
Not so. The scheme put forward by Lord Justice Leveson does, indeed, go too far. The judge advocates a supervisory system overseen by the broadcast watchdog, Ofcom – itself under direct government control – that would place potentially alarming powers in the hands of ministers. But a return to the toothless self-regulation of the discredited Press Complaints Commission, after recent revelations of endemic malpractice, is hardly more desirable. A middle ground must be found.
The plan for a more muscular “Recognition Panel”, created via Royal Charter, is just that. True, a charter requires legislation (albeit of just a single clause) – hence the resistance from those against statute of any kind. The law would not pertain to the media, though; it would merely authorise the regulator. And the need for a parliamentary super-majority to make any changes would, in fact, be a brake on ministerial meddling.
There are aspects of the plan which need more work. The phone-hacking scandal, and the Leveson Inquiry that followed, have shone an unforgiving light on the media’s ability to be its own judge and jury. It is therefore imperative that the panel include neither editors nor former editors among its numbers. At the same time, the imposition of more punitive fines on organisations refusing to sign up to the panel’s code of conduct should be scrapped. Tempting as it is to use such a mechanism to encourage participation in an otherwise voluntary system, the concomitant curb on free expression is too high a price.
There is, then, much still to discuss. But the priority now must be for the industry’s – justifiable – role in shaping its own regulatory future to move out of the shadows. Thus far, talks have been conducted behind closed doors only, creating the damaging and wholly erroneous impression that there is something to hide. There is not. Accordingly, it is time for the media to set out its position more clearly.
To continue with the current modus operandi would be counter-productive. Campaigners in favour of statutory legislation are already calling for a rejection of all “press-led” initiatives and the immediate adoption of the Leveson proposals. Meanwhile, frustrated parliamentarians are wrecking otherwise good laws by adding unrelated media-regulation clauses in an attempt to force through draconian measures by the back door.
Britain needs a media watchdog that protects individuals and press freedoms alike. That means the industry building bridges and hammering out a compromise – and doing so in public. Time is running out.