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Thursday, March 14, 2013 

Press regulation: is anyone still paying attention?

As an indication of just how interminable the almost four month long talks on implementing the Leveson report have been, you'll note I haven't dedicated a single post to the report since it was published. When even I find a section of politics I'm normally fascinated by so unutterably tedious, the sheer boredom that emanates from it must surely be sufficient to kill small mammals unlucky enough to be in earshot.

On this level alone, it's difficult to begrudge the decision by David Cameron to bring the cross-party discussions to a close and force a vote on the proposal for a royal charter as it stands. It's also doubtful just how much of a difference there now is between the parties: they all seem to have accepted the establishment of a new regulator via charter rather than statute, and only appear to disagree on ensuring that the charter can't be picked apart by politicians in the future, as well as just how independent the new board will be.

There is definitely then an element of cynicism in Cameron's pulling of the plug now, regardless of the claims otherwise.  He's had a miserable couple of weeks since his party came third in Eastleigh, and yesterday took the equivalent of a sound thrashing at prime minister's questions from a mocking Ed Miliband. By claiming to be defending press freedom he's quickly won the support of the press barons, with only the Graun, Independent and FT concerned at how once again there seems to have been a stitch-up between the government and the same old guard who've never accepted reform in the past.

Indeed, Cameron has played an extremely weak hand with greater political skill than on almost anything comparable of late.  He's apparently succeeded in stopping statute, has courted a press that for the most part has always been suspicious of him and has now forced a vote that could help to reinforce his authority.  And again, it's difficult to criticise him for much of this: no government would or should tolerate the hijacking of multiple bills in an effort to force the issue.  Lord Puttnam's sabotaging of the defamation act is especially enraging when it should be complementing Leveson rather than damaging the chances of either becoming law.

For as much as Cameron went back on his word to implement Leveson as long as what was recommended wasn't "bonkers", far more foolish was Labour's pledge to enshrine it in full when they couldn't possibly have read the thing.  Also counter-productive has been the Hacked Off campaign, which hasn't seemed to know when to stop, always saying that anything less than statute would be an effective betrayal of the victims of intrusion and hacking. The barons might well deserve statute, but all the other publishers and media groups don't.  My position has always been that we need a genuinely independent regulator, able to investigate both complaints and initiate their own if necessary, as well as one that can impose fines and order where corrections and apologies should be printed.  If all this can be achieved with a charter, as it seems it can, then statute simply isn't needed.

On some measures, Leveson and the government in fact want to go too far.  The idea of exemplary damages for those who refuse to join the new regulator if they are then taken to court sounds fine if it's Richard Desmond's Northern and Shell that once again decides not to join, but not if it also means that Private Eye is potentially put in peril, as the magazine has up to now always been outside the PCC and seems unlikely to join this time either.  The last thing we need at the moment is the kind of law that could make new papers or weeklies completely uneconomical, especially as newspaper circulations continue to plummet.

Cameron's gamble is that this has now become a zero sum game.  If it comes a vote and he wins, then he can expect at least some gratitude from the Tory press, while it will also show he can still unite his party on some issues.  If he loses, then he can blame the perfidy of the Lib Dems and say that they and the Labour party want to dilute press freedom for their own political advantage.  What though if Cameron is wrong, and a loss is instead seen as the ultimate evidence that his authority is ebbing away, or, if they manage to scrape through, the public sees it as more proof of politicians wanting to suck up to media proprietors rather than doing the right thing?

In all likelihood, one suspects that Cameron believes his move will force Nick Clegg into moving towards his position, not wanting to vote against the government so soon after his party refused to back the boundary review in revenge for the dropping of Lords reform.  It may instead come down to who blinks first, and I can't help but feel there's likely to be some sort of compromise reached before Monday is out.  Whether it means we will finally have regulation worthy of the name remains to be seen.

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Oh why don't they just give up? This is so humiliating for our democracy. It was bad enough that the freedom of our press was being reviewed by an unelected lord - now the press is being regulated in the name of the monarch.

Maybe one day we can reach the unimaginably radical stage of 1789, with our freedom having some sort of constitutional protection. It's science fiction, I know.

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