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Monday, March 18, 2013 

The vilest thing.

So, err, what exactly did David Cameron's chucking of his toys out the pram on Thursday achieve?  As many expected, we woke up this morning to discover that a deal had been reached overnight, although it came sadly too late for the Mail and the Sun to redo their hysterical front pages predicting today would be The End of Press Freedom as We Know It.  The agreement, which Cameron is now introducing in the Commons, makes pretty damn plain that on all the major points, the very temporary Lib Dem-Labour alliance has been victorious.  We already knew that all three parties had accepted there would be a charter rather than statute, so although Cameron and the Tories will say they've won on that score, that wasn't what was being fought over when Cameron walked out on Thursday.

On the disagreements which supposedly led Cameron to call it quits, he seems to have simply caved in after some further reflection.  While the new regulation system won't then have statutory underpinning, it will only be able to be disbanded through majority vote in the Commons, although this doesn't necessarily apply to future parliaments.  More fundamentally, Clegg and Miliband also succeeded in ensuring the press won't be able to veto appointments to the new board of the regulator, something that could have made the replacement to the PCC almost exactly the same as its predecessor.  They've also ensured the regulator will be able to "direct" where papers have to print prominent apologies, rather than "require", although frankly you still to have to wonder if such measures will be abided by.

Which will be the ultimate test of the new system.  Leveson and everything that's gone with it will be meaningless if what we end up with is a system which still isn't followed.  You'd like to think that all the caterwauling from some sections of the media about the end of free speech means they genuinely do fear that the new regulator will have teeth, and the news that the Newspaper Society has issued a statement on behalf of the press barons that they are yet undecided as to whether to endorse the charter might encourage this view.  It's difficult to see them rejecting it outright though at this point, especially as public pressure for them to sign up is likely to be high.

Especially when, once they've reflected properly on it, all the charter will do is put in place regulation similar to that in Ireland, and which most of the newspapers operate under through their specific editions for the country.  The one thing they may well legitimately fear is the exemplary damages proposed for those who remain outside the regulator, although it remains to be seen what publishing "with reckless disregard for a claimant's rights" will mean in practice.  If it means that Private Eye or similar small publications could potentially be ran out of business for libelling the powerful, as indeed James Goldsmith tried to achieve back in the 70s, then this is a system which deserves to be boycotted.

The point remains that however much the likes of the Telegraph now complain about the imposition of regulation, they did nothing whatsoever to attempt to rein in the excesses of the tabloids while the PCC was in operation.  Murdoch's Times was similarly blind for the most part, however much it has since attempted to signal its independence.  The news today that the Sun was supplied with the stolen phone of Siobhan McDonagh, which it subsequently "lost" after accessing the text messages on it, all of which happened back in 2010 during the current editorship of Dominic Mohan, makes clear that all is still not well.  

This makes it all the more incredible that the Sun splashed today with the words of Churchill, that "the press will continue to be the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen".  This is of course the same Sun newspaper which supported Blair and then Gordon Brown in their attempts to introduce 90 and then 42 days detention without charge, and which has never so much as once opposed the attempt of any government to limit civil liberties with the supposed aim of preventing crime.  Murdoch only cares about press freedom as much as it enables him to make money, as demonstrated when he dropped the BBC from his satellite operations in China following criticism from the authorities.

The same silliness emanates from Iain Martin and his stated view that it's "terrifying how quickly we've slid from a free press to politicians stitching up press regulation".  Quite apart from how the press have had decades to get self-regulation right and have either refused to or failed at every attempt, his claim that the Americans would be bewildered by the idea of regulating the press is daft when you consider the fact that their press long since moved away from the sensationalist model we're so used to, and that they've also long been sycophantic towards power rather than anywhere near as boisterous as our newspapers.  This said, nothing voted on today is going to make the powerful less accountable: the idea that this is revenge by politicians simply doesn't stand up. Some obviously would like the press to be weaker, but power is shifting in any case.  Newspapers might still break the news and run campaigns, yet increasingly it's genuine public outcry rather than media manfactured outrage that achieves results, as indeed led to Leveson in the first place.

As for how this affects the various party leaders, much depends now on how the media responds.  If they decide that Cameron has essentially acquiesced to the demands of the other side, then it's hardly going to increase their already low opinion of him. They may in time thank him for heading off full statutory underpinning, but plainly not right now.  Similarly, Miliband and Clegg can continue to expect hostile coverage, although whether either care at this point is dubious.  Cameron also looks weak: after all but saying bring it on on Thursday, prepared to lose a vote as long as he did so while defending press freedom, it looks as though he backed down, afraid to lose it so soundly.  He must also be concerned at how Clegg and Miliband worked together when there's surely potential for them to do the same in the future.

Only time will tell whether today really does signal the point at which the press in this country finally realises that it can no longer get away with doing exactly as it pleases, with no regard for privacy, the law, or for the feelings of those whose lives they intrude into.  It is though the point at which our politicians have finally called the bluff of the barons.  In that sense, and considering our past, it's a change to savour.

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Having had dealings over the years with *The* Newspaper Society which represents the interests of Regional & Local Press*, I think you should maybe change your NS reference even though enclosed by quotes.

*although many are owned by the large National publishers.


Ah, thanks. Duly edited to make clear it's a statement from them on behalf of the major newspaper groups. I also put Rothschilds instead of the Rothermeres. Oops. Good thing blogging isn't covered under the charter.

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