After weeks of huffing and puffing, the coalition government in the UK has finally unveiled its plans for a new regulator for the press following the Leveson recommendations. Having said he accepted them, the UK PM set out to walk out a tight rope, placating the families of the victims of the phone hacking scandal while negotiating with media barons.
The anti-Leveson camp upped the ante by running in advance of the publication of the report a vicious campaign against the anticipated changes, focusing in particular on the legislative underpinnings of any new watchdog, describing them as a Mugabe-like end of press freedom. The PM himself was forced to say that any Leveson law would be like crossing a Rubicon and end centuries of press freedom.
In the ensuing furore, media moguls splintered in different directions. Lord Hunt, the current Press Complaint Commission chair, surrounded by legal and policy advisers, led efforts to create a successor body to the discredited press regulator. Editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, fought a lone battle with his proposal for a new system of press cards to license journalists which he argued will help to transform the regulation of journalistic behaviour. Lord Black, executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, emerged as the eminence grise of the newspaper industry following his successful campaign, the Free Speech Network, to demonise legislative underpinning. However his contract plan relying on civil law, while largely welcomed by the industry, started losing ground.
At the same time, the three main political parties started their all-party consultations which dragged on for weeks and finally ran into the sand. All this ferment was getting nowhere, some even arguing over the minutia of the differences between self-regulation and independent regulation, and, as we were then truly in the smoke and mirrors stage so beloved of the Westminster machine, Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin came in with his alternative, a royal press charter.
The proposals included some fresh thinking such as a new regulator, with real teeth and investigatory powers and the ability to bypass the courts to settle libel and privacy cases swiftly and cheaply, that it can deal with third party complaints, provide an arbitration process in relation to civil claims for alleged libel and privacy breaches and even levy fines up to £1m and exemplary damages for breaches of privacy.
However proposals that the new watchdog would be audited by a recognition body – a sort of verifying panel – every three years to be established by a royal charter, raised hackles from all sides. After waging a stubborn fight for months against statutory underpinning, now the Tory party is proposing a regulator which could be amended at any point by the privy council, made up of cabinet ministers – not even Parliament. “It requires some suspension of disbelief to take seriously the notion that Conservative ministers are now proposing that this device be used to regulate the British press” said an editorial.
Party managers are again huddled in cross-party talks that seem to be going nowhere. If the prospect for a royal charter bites the dust, there may still be room for other proposals for legislation emerging in particular from the majority in Parliament in favour of the full Leveson recommendations.