After Leveson, the pantomime

The British enjoy a special form of Christmas entertainment known as pantomime, in which the good guys and bad guys go in for cross-dressing and slapstick, mocking the class sytem in the process. Everyone has a good laugh at the expense of the rich, feels sorry for the poor, and nothing changes. Could this be the fate that awaits the Leveson inquiry into the abuses of power indulged in by the country's newspapers and their proprietors?

Brian Cathcart
17 December 2012

Amid all the manoeuvring by Cameron & Co as they try to avoid making editors and proprietors of the national press genuinely accountable for what they do, the idea of a Royal Charter has surfaced.

It is a seasonably folkloric and tinselly addition to the debate. Her Majesty’s privy counsellors, no doubt clad in breeches and kneeling in her presence, will ceremonially apply a red wax seal to a vellum scroll and lo, all the problems of press regulation will be magicked away.

This is just the latest proof that, when it comes to freedom of speech, Mr Cameron either does not understand it at all or else he is operating from a humiliatingly bad script written for him by Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre.

The Leveson Report mapped out a simple route for creating effective press regulation that is independent of both the industry and of politicians. Politicians would intervene once, with Parliament creating an arm’s-length body to audit the industry’s own regulator in the public interest, and that would be that. The judge also expressed the hope that this one intervention could be done on an all-party basis and in an atmosphere of the greatest possible transparency.Instead of this, look at the mess we’re in. The editors and proprietors, led by two working Conservative peers, Lords Hunt and Black, are busy knocking together a self-regulator that may be an improvement on their last one, but which will surely fall short of what Leveson wanted.

Look at the language of their letter to Maria Miller: ‘We accept a clear majority of Lord Justice Leveson’s main recommendations…’ These are weasel words. What is a ‘clear majority’ and how big is the clear minority left behind? And which are those ‘main recommendations’? It’s obvious that they are treating Leveson like an a la carte menu, picking and choosing the bits they like.

Independence is central to the Leveson proposal and we have a flavour of the industry’s idea of that concept from the ‘independent’ people Lord Hunt chose (well who else would choose them?) to guide the process. One is Lord Phillips of Worth Maltravers, whom Hunt acknowledges as an old chum and whom he refers to as ‘Nick’, and another is Sir Simon Jenkins, a former Fleet Street editor who wrote recently in the Guardian that ‘Lord Justice Leveson and his supporters seem to be converts to sharia law’. Jenkins also wrote, for good measure: ‘The Leveson inquiry itself was conducted as a cross between an X-Factor jury and a hanging court for the Murdoch family.’

As if this were not bad enough, the whole process appears to be directed from Downing Street. First Cameron and his cleverclogs-in-waiting, Oliver Letwin, called the editors in and spelled out what was wanted, and now the editors are writing back and saying: ‘We can confirm that we are committed to establishing a new system of independent self regulation in accordance with the five Leveson Principles outlined by the Prime Minister…’

Note that it is not ‘in accordance with the Leveson Report’, but with the Prime Minister’s bland five-point summary of it – a kind of Leveson Lite. So press regulation is now being mapped out under the guidance of one part of one political party. How is that a fit response to an inquiry into gross press abuses that ‘wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people’? How is that going to fix what six other inquiries in 70 years have failed to fix?

And it gets worse – which is where Her Majesty comes in. Rather than have Parliament pass a simple law setting up a ‘recognition body’ to ensure that the press self-regulator operates in the public interest, Letwin is reported to want a Royal Charter.

What role this gaudy document will play is unclear, but we know this. Royal Charters are not issued by Parliament, but by the Cabinet and a few other ministers, operating as the Privy Council. So this would not be all-party or anything like it. Nor would it be democratic or transparent. It would be a Cabinet decision, behind closed doors, with no one consulted except of course the editors and proprietors.

Next, the Charter will make no difference. A chartered entity has no greater standing in law than a company limited by guarantee (which is what the PCC is). It just has a vellum scroll. And inconveniently the charter can be altered at any time by – you guessed it – ministers acting as the Privy Council. This is surely the slipperiest of slippery slopes towards political interference in the press.

To get around this little problem, rumour has it that Letwin proposes that this should be a special Royal Charter, with a built-in safeguard against subsequent amendments. It seems that changes would only be possible if they were approved by – who’s left? – the Queen.

It is hard to imagine a more ludicrous pantomime, and Cameron, his ministers and the editors are going through all of this because, we are asked to believe, the Prime Minister has a principled objection to political interference in the press.

Cross-posted from Hacked Off with thanks, Brian Cathcart is their director. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.

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