30 Nov 2012

Last orders

Leaving the British press standing at the bar in the last chance saloon would be a mistake, Amber Melville-Brown tells the country's prime minister, as David Cameron appears prepared to spike the Leveson report

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‘Some people think I’m bonkers, but I just think I’m free…’ These are the words of Dizzee Rascal from his seminal 2009 hit, Bonkers. They could easily be the words of the UK prime minister on press regulation.
Lord Justice Leveson has spent 18 months – and the British tax payer has forked out £4 million – on an enquiry into press standards and the resulting detailed, 2,000-page report, which was handed down yesterday. Having put aside the whole of the previous afternoon to peruse it, Prime Minister David Cameron was quick to stand up in the House of Commons yesterday to knock down its central recommendation.


But a year ago Mr Cameron told victims of privacy invasion that unless the report was ‘bonkers’ he would implement it. However, yesterday’s statement to the Commons -- asserting ‘serious concerns and misgivings’ over one vital plank of the recommendations -- effectively relegates the report to the spike. This leaves the victims feeling betrayed, the press presumably somewhat buoyant, and that section of the public that still cares – now that the celebrity carnival is over -- a little bemused.
What in Mr Cameron’s opinion is it that is so ‘bonkers’ about the Leveson proposals for the future of press regulation? The judge made clear that the Press Complaints Commission, the former self-regulatory body, had not served the public well. So he proposed that out of its ashes should rise another self-regulatory body. But – and here’s the rub – one with a statutory underpinning.
The vociferous cries from editors atop their media soap boxes is that this will spell disaster for the print media and perhaps democracy itself; that it is akin to letting Uncle Joe Stalin oversee the running of our newspapers; that it will leave free speech up ‘Fleet Street’ without a paddle; and indeed, as uttered numerous times in the Commons yesterday, that adopting the recommendations would be ‘crossing the Rubicon’, apparently unthinkable in a free society.

Sinking ship

While Julius Caesar’s army may have crossed a point of no return on its way to Rome in 49 BC, the recommendations proposed by Lord Leveson 20 centuries later would, in fact, give the press an opportunity to bail out of the sinking ship in which it finds itself after the exposure of lurid criminality and widespread unethical behaviour.
The judge made clear ‘there must be change’. So he has proposed the PCC (‘ineffective and lacking in vigour’) be replaced by an independent regulatory body -- but one with statutory back up. And ‘statute’ is the word that has got everyone going. The independent watchdog -- which would have no serving editors on its board, as to allow that would be to allow the press to ‘mark its own homework’ – would be required to comply with standards and requirements prescribed by statute.
Lord Justice Leveson made it clear that the law he envisages would include an enshrined legal duty on the British government to protect freedom of the press; to provide an independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body; and to validate the standards code and the anticipated arbitral system of that body.
The anticipated arbitration service -- unlike the PCC, which could insist only on the publication of its judgments by way of sanction – would have power to insist on corrections and apologies and be able to impose fines of up to 1 per cent of turnover, up to a maximum of £1million. It is difficult to see the print media agreeing universally to handing over a cool million at all, let alone at the insistence of a truly independent regulator. But -- as the lows to which some elements of Fleet Street have been prepared to stoop for a scoop have been clearly exposed during the enquiry -- these proposals would provide another route to justice for impecunious members of the public unable to seek recourse through the courts.

Drunk on power

Without the vital statutory underpinning envisaged by Lord Justice Leveson there will be nothing new about the new system at all. More than 20 years of carousing in the last chance saloon of self regulation have left the press drunk on its own power and perceived invincibility. If the British government bows under the pressure of powerful scaremongers and ignores the crucial backbone of the Leveson proposals, then the press may well congratulate itself on being invited to one long happy hour.
And we should not be surprised to find a bloated, belligerent and bellicose press behaving badly and continuing metaphorically to live up to the worst stereotype of British binge drinking for some time to come.

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