The likelihood that a new press watchdog would be established without a rumpus was never high. Yet the spectacle of Westminster and (much of) Fleet Street in a stand-off over differences that are – posturing aside – far from substantial is still an unedifying one. It is high time for some sensible compromise.
The prospects are not encouraging. Earlier this week, newspaper industry plans were rejected by the Privy Council on the grounds that they fell short of the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry. Today, the Government will publish the final version of its own proposal, with the Royal Charter at its heart, to be sent to the Queen for signature on 30 October. Thus far, though, several powerful publishers have dug in their heels, leaving just a few weeks to persuade them to sign up.
Considered dispassionately, the relatively minor differences between the two schemes would suggest an easy deal. But this is a far from dispassionate topic. It was crassly foolish to have representatives of Hacked Off at the late-night pizza session where politicians’ plans were drafted. The result is that, seven months on, talk of a calculated assault on hundreds of years of press freedom is as feverish as ever.
In a last-minute attempt to make the Royal Charter scheme more palatable, it has been tweaked in several important areas. Arbitration may now come with a small fee to deter the vexatious. Third-party complaints – from pressure groups, for example – could also only be admissible if they pertain to matters of “significant public interest”. There are moves, too, to ensure the committee setting the editorial code is not hijacked by press-bashers.
Such changes are welcome, even if not all the industry’s criticisms have been addressed (most notably that concerning the emendation of the Royal Charter by a two-thirds majority in Parliament). The regulatory regime remains voluntary, however – albeit with sanctions for non-participants – and little will be achieved if larger publishing groups refuse to play ball.
The Independent is, of course, committed to press freedom. It is no contradiction to accept the overwhelming evidence that the industry has been marking its own homework for too long. Between the failures of the Press Complaints Commission and the shameful misconduct of some journalists, the status quo is no longer defensible. And there is also a broader question here. The Royal Charter has cross-party support and follows a judicial inquiry; simply to ignore it risks making a mockery of the very democracy of which the press considers itself the guardian.
It would be as well to reach a solution quickly. The phone-hacking trials are due to start imminently, raising the prospect of yet more damaging revelations and calls for yet more draconian reform. Given that politicians have made concessions in some key areas, it is perhaps now time for the industry to do the same.
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