Westminster Watch - November 2013

Drinking in the Last Chance Saloon; Toby Craig asks if press regulation is now an inevitability.

Party conferences and a bit of feng shui in the form of a pretty unexciting reshuffle grabbed some of the headlines in recent weeks. Shailesh Vara replaces Helen Grant as Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, as she moves to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. A former solicitor, Vara’s brief will include legal aid and regulation. In the long run though, it’s just yesterday’s fish and chip paper (a position to which WW continues to aspire). But there is one story which simply refuses to go away and which continues to catch WW’s eye. That is the vexed question of who gets to say what can be written on tomorrow’s fish and chip paper?

As the three main parties edged ever nearer to a deal and the position of our friends in Fleet Street became ever more entrenched, press regulation loomed large once more.

So where are the battle lines? In the Royal (Charter) Blue Corner is the Government, the Opposition and influential campaign groups. In the Red (Top) Corner is the Fourth Estate and also some pretty influential campaigners. Both have a fiery spark in their eyes and are ready to go to war. Although one side has adopted the moniker, it’s hard to believe that everyone isn’t at least a bit Hacked Off. The faux or genuine indignation of politicians and newspaper proprietors alike, those two famously sympathetic occupations, was never likely to elicit much sympathy.

And yet this is a very modern morality tale in which we should all be taking a keen interest. A free and independent press is crucial in any open and accountable democracy. But has the cost of total freedom and unfettered independence from statutory regulation been too high for those caught in its path? To put it another way, ultimately are there absolutes which we simply must defend no matter what or does everything have a price?

The ripples created by Lord Justice Leveson’s eponymous report have continued to gather momentum and have predictably fashioned themselves into a rampaging tsunami. The issue at the heart of this heated debate is whether Parliament could ever properly regulate a free press worthy of that name. Would investigative journalism at its very best, holding governments of all stripes to account, be able to function as effectively at all, under the lingering glare of politicians with a vested interest? But on the other hand, without that glare, what will temper the worst excesses of tabloid journalism? It is a tension at the core of how our modern media operates.

The Leveson Report and its surrounding events laid bare just how far some journalists were willing to go to get their story. Phone hacking, theft and payments to police officers were just some of the techniques which were employed and have led to a number of convictions and ongoing cases against some of the media’s most high profile operators. Even the greatest cynics among us would have been forgiven for being surprised by the sheer scale of wrongdoing. It is worth remembering that these offences were already against the law and the law is already dealing with them. We also have incredibly strict defamation laws, which are readily enforced. It is not clear that further regulation would make a substantial difference.

Lord Justice Leveson proposed an independent system of regulation, but importantly underpinned by legislation (increasingly looking like a Royal Charter). He envisaged no hands-on regulatory role for politicians, but the principle of any statutory regulation in any form is too much for some to stomach. They say once the pass has been sold, a future Parliament can manipulate the press at its will.

Ed Miliband has led the charge on a Royal Charter, seemingly with particularly close ties to Hacked Off. Nick Clegg has not been far behind. Miliband urged MPs to “stand up for the victims” of press abuse.

His calls came into sharper focus as he entered a very public spat with the Daily Mail which launched a stinging character assassination of his father, Ralph, who, the paper proclaimed, was “the man who hated Britain” which understandably triggered an emotional and furious response. It linked Miliband’s Conference speech and its perceived socialist values with the Marxist ones which it alleges inspired his father. The row which the piece provoked was considerable and it seemed to veer uncomfortably into the personal. This, some argue, is precisely why stronger press regulation is needed. Not a bit of it replied Mail editor Paul Dacre. Writing in the Guardian and his own paper, his view was: “Certainly, the Mail will not be silenced by a Labour party that has covered up unnecessary, and often horrific, deaths in NHS hospitals, and suggests instead that it should start looking urgently at its own culture and practices. Some have argued that last week’s brouhaha shows the need for statutory press regulation. I would argue the opposite. The febrile heat, hatred, irrationality and prejudice provoked by last week’s row reveals why politicians must not be allowed anywhere near press regulation.”

The Prime Minister has been slower and more reluctant in coming to the party. He sometimes seems torn between the populist approach and a more principled one, yet seems to be erring in favour of the former.

Dacre’s approach questions how far, as a society, we are willing to protect the right of our fellow citizens (which has never been absolute) to say things which we may not agree with. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, devoted the magazine’s cover to a single word, ‘No’, when the idea of a Royal Charter was first floated in March. In a robust and articulate defence of press freedom, he said his publication would not sign up and recalled Nigel Lawson’s observation that “the most dangerous moments in our democracy come when all parties agree”.

The press has not moved quickly enough with its own self-regulatory alternative, which needs considerable teeth. It would help to advance its cause if it had done.

There are no easy answers. Every outcome has undesirable consequences. But fence-sitting is only likely to cause splinters. It is hard to get away from the lingering fear that future governments, with regulatory control, will not live in such benevolent times.

Freedom is always a price worth paying and whilst the glasses may almost be drained, perhaps there’s still time for one for the road in the most famous of watering holes.

Toby Craig is the head of communications at the Bar Council