A free press that can challenge wrong-doing in public and private life is essential for a democracy. Silencing it is the first act of every totalitarian regime. A press that is itself guilty of wrongdoing is a menace to those it uses and abuses.
Hacking phones for private information and publishing untruthful and exaggerated headlines to sell newspapers, as the Dowlers, McCanns and many others have experienced, is outrageous abuse of press freedom. The Leveson inquiry, set up to conduct an independent examination of these abuses, concluded that the Press Complaints Commission was ineffectual and needed replacing. The Leveson Report called for a new, powerful, self-regulatory body that the press themselves establish. He anticipated that its creation would require legislation.
Legislation to establish the composition, functions and powers of this new body immediately rang alarm bells in newspaper offices. If the politicians set it up, how free would the press remain? But if the papers created the body themselves, what guarantee is there that it would have the power to fine papers and journalists for abusive conduct and ensure prompt and high profile apologies for their errors and misjudgements? The Prime Minister opposed a statutory solution from the outset but the other party leaders saw this as the best way to satisfy the victims of past cases.
For more than three months they talked and disagreed. Last week Mr Cameron, seeing no hope of progress, called off the talks. He faced defeat in the House by a combination of Labour, the Lib Dems and Conservative rebels. On Monday 17th the talks were restarted and a compromise was found. This was built around the appointment by the Queen and Privy Council of a Royal Charter to establish an independent press regulator with powers” to ensure up-front apologies, million pound fines, a robust standards code, an arbitration service that is free to victims and a speedy complaint-handling mechanism”.[i]
This solution, that finally has all-party backing, avoids the legislative approach though two Bills already in passage through Parliament will be amended to establish the possibility of exemplary costs and damages that would apply to offending newspapers that have opted out of the scheme, creating a strong incentive for them all to join it. The other amendment will establish that the Royal Charter can only be changed by a vote of two thirds of both Houses of Parliament. This satisfies Mr Cameron’s wish to minimise the possibility of politicians meddling with the system. This will not satisfy some journalists but it was the least that the three parties could agree.
The tension between press freedom to inform and enable us to hold politicians to account and press regulation to protect citizens from journalist and editorial abuse is real and hard to police. At its best the industry will practice what St Paul advocated (Philippians 4:8), whether they are aware of it or not.
[i] Hansard Column 632 18th March 2013 (Prime Minister speaking in Emergency Debate under S.O. 24)