In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

The Press Into Darkness

The press in the United Kingdom are to be subject to a revitalised regulator, which will be recognised in law by a body established by a Royal Charter. These proposals arise from the fresh tomes of Lord Justice Leveson’s report into press culture and ethics, summoned by the Prime Minister in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. Despite Labour’s initial intention to have a press law similar to the Republic of Ireland, the parties in the House of Commons settled around a Royal Charter.

The Royal Charter has arisen from Lord Justice Leveson's proposals. (Photo: Evening Standard)

The Royal Charter has arisen from Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals. (Photo: Evening Standard)

The central proposal in Leveson’s report was for a new press regulator, set up by newspapers, with “statutory underpinning” from Parliament, which would ‘recognise’ that regulator. These scans of recognition are necessary to the proposal, because submission to this regulator would affect the legal standing of a publisher. Any publisher that escaped the new regulator’s purview would face much higher damages through court cases, ensuring that membership to the reloaded Press Complaints Commission remains a lingering incentive. An amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill creates these precise enticements. This was Leveson’s main proposal, now brought to life by legislation and charters.

Exemplary court damages are meant to envelop those publishers that refuse to join the resurrected regulator, so that there is no direct compulsion to join. However, it becomes difficult to describe a newspaper’s membership as wholly voluntary, since they will be stalked by higher court costs if they dare to defy this new regulator. Nor can it be described as self-regulation, since there is an impressive list of criteria in the Royal Charter that the PCC Mk. 2 must meet in order to be ‘recognised’, including the exact power to levy fines of £1m. Since the absence of a ‘recognised’ regulator would ensure that all publishers face inflated court costs, there is a strong impetus to construct a Leveson-compliant body.

The Devil Hides in the Definitions

Even if you believe these proposals are a proportionate response to newspaper impropriety, the devil hides in the definitions. In Schedule 4 (Interpretation):

1. For the purposes of this Charter:

a) “Regulator” means an independent body formed by or on behalf of relevant publishers for the purpose of conducting regulatory activities in relation to their publications;

b) “relevant publisher” means a person (other than a broadcaster) who publishes in the United Kingdom:

i. a newspaper or magazine containing news-related material, or

ii. a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a newspaper or magazine);

c) “broadcaster” means:

i. the holder of a licence under the Broadcasting Act 1990 or 1996;

ii. the British Broadcasting Corporation; or

iii. Sianel Pedwar Cymru;

d) a person “publishes in the United Kingdom” if the publication takes place in the United Kingdom or is targeted primarily at an audience in the United Kingdom;

e) “news-related material” means:

i. news or information about current affairs;

ii. opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs; or

iii. gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news.

The Leveson Inquiry contained itself to its remit – the relationships, ethics and culture of newspapers in the UK. The short chapter in Leveson’s final report on the internet was heavily criticised, as the slow petrification of the daily newspaper industry is caused by the raucous and vibrant world of online news and comment. The ability to deliver news around the world instantaneously is rendering the daily newspapers out-of-date as they sit patiently in their stands. That ability, however, can breathe life into more sporadic publications, such as the weekly Bath Chronicle or the fortnightly student newspaper bathimpact, as regular updates fosters relevance and permanence.

The jurisdiction of this regulation is apparently the entire world, as the term ‘publishes in the United Kingdom’ includes news organisations or websites where the content “is targeted primarily at an audience in the United Kingdom”, meaning that those publishers can be based outside of the UK. The universal scope of the new regulator is a devastating flaw, and can only force the regulatory system to collapse, as our country maintains its penchant for libel and complaint tourism.

This is how the new regulator will supposedly function. (Photo: Daily Mail)

This is how the new regulator will supposedly function. (Photo: Daily Mail)

Demarcation of Opinion

The Royal Charter seeks that all deliverers of “news-related material” should be recognised and regulated: every magazine, every student newspaper, every town hall newsletter, every blog. This sprawling remit is unshackled from the concerns raised by the Leveson Inquiry, and would most likely mean that blogging authors would face complaints via the Leveson-PCC, whilst the accusers bear no costs and the publisher always pays, even when the publisher wins. Whilst this rule has its justifications with large news corporations in mind, it has no justification for citizen journalists.

The reaction of columnists to the Leveson-PCC proposal has revealed a great demarcation of opinion. Toby Young of the Telegraph believes that: “This isn’t a compromise. It’s a capitulation. Anyone who cares about press freedom should resist by any means necessary.” Joining him is Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror: “Instead of a US First Amendment to guarantee free speech and a free press, we’ll be shackled.”

Grand Moff Toynbee at the Guardian vehemently disagreed, claiming that:

The press is free, but the balance is tilted a little in favour of the citizen against bare-knuckle thuggery.

The real focus of her piece yawns open, as “the citizen” is not even a temporary concern to Ms Toynbee – it’s about power and press ownership:

This is about who runs the country – a democratically elected parliament with strong public opinion on this or Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers and the Mail’s Paul Dacre, strong-arming politicians to their will.

Later in her column, Ms Toynbee writes:

Shrinking in sales but not influence, 80% of newspaper readership is owned by far-right proprietors – mostly non-UK taxpayers, something that’s not allowed in the US.

It is outrageous for Ms Toynbee to say that all of the sales by nominally right-wing newspaper are owned by “far-right proprietors”, a term commonly reserved for fascists and neo-Nazis.

Conclusions

The tumultuous debate around a Leveson-type Royal Charter has exposed a significant contingent of our politics: those who believe in policy as penance. With journalists being arrested for the crimes of phone-hacking and unjustified interceptions, the wheels of justice revolve slowly, crushing the press culture that sustained such criminality. In a country where anyone can become a journalist, we should not set aside special laws for journalists. Instead of a Royal Charter constraining publishers and journalists, we should err on the side of liberty and write our own First Amendment, guaranteeing their freedom.

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6 comments on “The Press Into Darkness

  1. Simon O'Kane
    March 20, 2013

    According to the Daily Mail’s diagram, Simon Jenkins, who is supposedly an outspoken critic of the new regulator, is set to be on one of the appointment panels. Do you think he’s selling out or trying to work with the system to ensure it doesn’t go overboard?

    More generally, I think the timing of this is interesting. The economic situation is causing dissent to grow and politicians will inevitably be tempted to find ways of dealing with it.

    Do you know if politicians are allowed to serve on the main board or any of its sub-committees?

    • Anthony Masters
      March 21, 2013

      I believe Simon Jenkins would rather there be no system like this, but people always tend to work within systems when they know they can’t halt it.
      In response to your second question, the Royal Charters says:

      7.3. None of the following may be a member of staff employed by the Recognition Panel
      or be otherwise engaged by the Recognition Panel in a similar capacity (whether on
      a full-time or part-time basis):
      f) a serving or former member of the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the
      Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the National Assembly for
      Wales.

      2.3. In order to ensure the independence of the Appointments Committee, a person shall
      be ineligible to be appointed if he:
      c) is a member of the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern
      Ireland Assembly, the National Assembly for Wales the European Parliament or
      the House of Lords (but only if, in the case of the House of Lords, the member
      holds or has held within the previous 5 years an official affiliation with a political
      party); or
      d) is a Minister of the Crown, a Scottish Minister, a Northern Ireland Executive
      Minister, or a Welsh Government Minister.

      The members of the Board of both the Recognition Panel and has the same criteria as the Appointments Committee. Those conditions also exist as part of the recognition criteria for a regulator. Broadly, no current politician may serve on the Appointments Committee, the Board of the Recognition Panel or any recognised regulator, and no politician (current or former) may be employed by the Recognition Body. Having no politicians is not equivalent to an institution being non-political.

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