Very few industries welcome new regulation. Fast food retailers aren’t vocal in screaming for a ‘fat tax’. Booze manufacturers don’t want a minimum price for alcohol. Energy generators don’t generally want strong renewable obligations. When new regulations are proposed then the industry interest resorts to apocalyptic rhetoric that often refers to: (a) North Korea and China; (b) George Orwell; and/or (c) Adolf Hitler. So far, so obvious.
So this week’s broad press reaction to the possibility of the creation of a new statute-underpinned regulator was all rather predictable. Fraser “Spartacus” Nelson won’t go to prison to fight it. And nor will anyone else.
There are very good arguments against state-underpinned independent regulation of the press. There are good arguments against introducing new regulation across all the industries mentioned above. It is only when there is identifiable harm through not regulating or where there are collective outcomes that have wide benefit that would not be secured that action should be taken. To propose such institutions is not ‘anti-liberal’ as long as these bodies safeguard or enhance freedom in a way that would not occur without the intervention. It is, however, anti-libertarian.
Today’s press are the libertarians of the age. Freedom does sometimes depend on laws rather than their absence. This is one such occasion. True liberals understand that.
Sir David Calcutt proposed the continuation of self-regulation of the press as a last chance in 1993 as explained by Carl Gardner. Well, that last-chance has now gone. There is little doubt that since 1993 the newspaper industry has failed to take responsibility upon itself. That lack of responsibility has led to individuals being harassed, laws broken without any identifiable public interest, public authorities corrupted, and the legislative and political process compromised.
There is nothing in the advance manoeuvres of the press in the last few days and weeks that shows the press is willing or able to confront its excesses. This is the clincher in favour of a statute-underpinned independent regulator. The purpose of such a regulator is not simply to stiffen up redress but also to force a different press culture – willing to take risks in pursuit of the public interest but also understanding that it has to act in a more responsible way towards the rights of the individual. The relationship was clearly not going to be resolved by a beefed up Press Complaints Commission.
The Leveson Inquiry is far from a triumph, however. It still puts the ball in the court of the press to come back with its own proposals before the state route is pursued – a tactical error that will delay necessary action. He has actually proposed a statutory backstop rather than statutory-underpinning of the press: weaker in other words.
He has also failed to understand how News International titles have underpinned the commercial interests of News Corporation. There was no ‘deal’ between the Conservatives and Rupert Murdoch on BSkyB he concludes. Of course there wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean that there was not unspoken collusion – far more subtle but equally corrosive. News International is the power lever; BSkyB the cash machine. Leveson has completely misunderstood this interaction. It’s not a conspiracy as such; it’s a bias (and in this Leveson was far too credulous)– one that has a corrosive effect. There was more than enough evidence of this bias in the evidence he received.
The biggest issue in this arena is not press regulation itself. It’s concentration of ownership and how that swells the political power of some media barons. Teddy Roosevelt would have understood this well. Without a strong cultural push back- the sort of culture of integrity that, for example, exists at The Times – this concentration of power can corrode the public interest. Leveson fails in this regard and it was apparent during the Inquiry that he had failed to understand the machinations of modern politics and media in this regard.
Other objections to statute-backed regulation that have been thrown up are also fairly marginal. The ‘internet’ objection hardly stands up to any scrutiny. It will be fairly straightforward to include internet-only publications under the provisions of any new regulatory body. If you are a UK-located commercial news operation – even if foreign registered and owned – of a certain size, on or off-line, that is not already regulated by Ofcom then you should be regulated in the same way as the press.
So over to the politicians as Lord Leveson said. David Cameron is ducking state-underpinning or even a state-backstop for independent regulation. The received wisdom is that the public doesn’t care about Leveson and all that. To a certain extent, this is right. But if the outcome is simply a slightly beefed up PCC then people will be confused – why on earth was the Inquiry necessary? And if the industry fails to come up with anything more then will David Cameron be willing, as he says, to ‘cross the Rubicon’ and initiate legislation or regulatory action? On this he was silent. From the evidence of the last few days, it seems anything but obvious that consensus for strong independent regulation will be agreed by the press. Philosophically, Cameron rejected the proposals on conservative grounds – unforeseen consequences of creating new legislation and regulation. This is a position that it will be difficult to reverse given it is underpinned by philosophy.
David Cameron’s position – whether tactical or philosophical – is a politically problematic one. It won’t be a disaster for him to be seen to resist real reform but will add to the long list of doubts that people already have of him. It is a position that will be seen as weak, politics as usual, sucking up to the media – the full-throated support of The Sun in 2015 may not be enough to compensate for the negatives that the Prime Minister is stacking up.
For Ed Miliband, he has no option but to drive forward. On press regulation, Leveson has pitched his proposal in a neat political position. That helps Miliband to demand urgency. The bonus is that this position is a wedge between the two Coalition partners and that will look bad on both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Miliband is all-in on this one but he can win and look stronger in the process. The parliamentary arithmetic may also start to work in his favour on this issue.
The Leveson report is pretty much the weakest possible proposal that fits within a statutory-underpinning for independent press regulation. He expressed the desire for his report to be the final word on press regulation after half a century of trying. If there is any slippage at all from his proposals then it won’t be the last word at all. If it’s a negotiating position then it’s a weak one but one that David Cameron still failed to grasp hold of. Never look a gift horse in the mouth? The Prime Minister may just have done so.