FLEET STREET EDITORS’ OPPOSITION TO STATUTORY REGULATION IS BASED ON PRINCIPLE, NOT REALITY
What a difference a year makes. Well, eighteen months or so anyway. Back in the summer of 2011, the nation was simmering with rage at the discovery of a myriad of sordid abuses taking place at the News of The World. The public and policymakers alike, roundly denounced the now defunct publication, with the chorus of indignation reaching such a volume, old Lord God himself - Rupert Murdoch - was forced to intervene. Within the press, The Guardian lead the righteous charge for reform but columnists across all the major newspapers were exhorting the need for change. However, following the recent publication of the Leveson Report into press ethics, the establishment (with the laudably notable exception of The Guardian) has now closed ranks, displaying a haughty intractability to change, seemingly forgetting quite how gruesome some of its members' abuses actually were.
As 2012 draws to a close editors from all newspapers are now decrying the possibility of reform and regulation (unthinkable a year ago), by clinging on to the notion that Leveson’s proposals – if backed or underpinned with statute – constitute an unacceptable intrusion into the freedom of the press. Whilst it is true that legislation in the manner proposed by Leveson would constitute a legal encroachment into press freedom - the like of which hasn’t occurred for hundreds of years – this is true in principle only. The de facto ability of the press to lawfully investigate and construct stories is not put under any pressure or restriction by Leveson’s proposals. Instead, a method of effective accountability (the Press Complaints Commission have hitherto been as ‘effective’ as the FSA at holding its industry to account) has been suggested, charged with the potency of the full force of law, which would allow recourse for normal members of the public to take action in the event that they suffer unjustly at the hands of the press. The press may argue that the libel courts are already there; but such a supposition is pathetically selective, as the financial cost of entering libel courts and using libel lawyers means they are simply not there for ordinary members of the public - like the members of Milly Dowler’s family. All the more for an offence which is not libel; or for the protection of a right – privacy – which is not enshrined in any piece of legislation. But the press are loathe to accepting this; instead arguing that the de jure ‘principle’ of press freedom outweighs the need for effective sanction against actual abuses by insalubriously motivated editors and hacks. A simple de jure versus de facto separation; it’s funny how those in the morally-wrong always seem to rely on the de jure argument, being unable to confront the de facto truth.
Take The Spectator for example. The magazine’s editor, Fraser Nelson, has been arguably one of the most vocal detractors from the idea of press regulation. So much so, he has vowed to ignore any regulatory arrangement that is statutorily based, saying ‘I refuse on principle’. In an interview reported by The Daily Telegraph, Nelson described how press freedom is a core tenet of The Spectator’s constitution and how any moves against it would ‘betray everything The Spectator has stood for since 1828.’ He goes on to cite two articles that the magazine published concerning this: one from 1828 and another from 1833. It is perhaps to his own good fortune that Mr Nelson is not a lawyer; as his ability to cite relevant and recent precedent is somewhat lacking. It is highly unlikely that the issues of press conduct associated with phone hacking surfaced in the 1820s in quite the way that they did in 2011. Similarly, defences of press freedom from state intervention in the editorial sense is one thing; defending the right of the press to conduct its affairs in a way that renders it supra-legal, is quite another.
Nelson, along with many other editors who have joined suit, may actually have nothing to feel all too guilty about. After all, not every newspaper was implicated in as damning a way as some of the tabloids. But the adoption of this ‘principled’ stand on press freedom is so ignorant of the facts that have precipitated the present scenario; it can only be considered as grimly disingenuous at best, alarmingly cynical at worst.
Any reader of the Leveson report would understand that there is no intention to curtail the editorial freedom of the press. Leveson is not the first step towards a state-run propaganda machine – merely a much-needed first step in attempting to curtail putatively discredited conduct. And yet this is what many newspaper editors are insinuating, suggesting that their hands would be tied by statute to such a degree, their editorial freedom would be irreparably damaged, with democracy itself being the primary casualty. The editor of The Independent, Chris Blackhurst, was interviewed by the BBC and suggested that a statutorily backed system of regulation would compel him to have to ‘phone a lawyer’ before printing every story. The idea that Leveson would suddenly create a legal minefield that was otherwise non-existent is a complete nonsense, and Blackhurst will doubtlessly have had to phone lawyers in the past (if he gave even a modicum of a shit about libel), so he may already be well versed in such unspeakable inconveniences like consulting legal counsel. In future, if his reporters lawfully and ethically acquire facts to construct their stories, he may never have to speak to lawyers any more than he does now. If his reporters want to hack unsuspecting peoples’ phones, then yes, he may need to start beefing-up his roster of attorneys.
Following the ‘conference’ at Number 10 yesterday where nearly all The Fleet Street editors met the Prime Minister, the press was left to mull a considerable (and predictable) concession made to them by David Cameron. The Leveson report will need to be implemented ‘line by line’, but with the fig leaf of a statute-free underpinning. The press will now have to convene and try and decipher a way to replace the PCC with another self-regulating authority – based on the Leveson proposals. The Prime Minister has suggested this process should take ten days to two weeks maximum: a timetable with a harshness that is clearly symbolic. How the press reacts now is key. It will determine whether the newspapers are simply as avaricious and self-interested as many of us think; or whether they're as democratically motivated as many of them like to believe.