Thu, Mar 28, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Reform is badly needed, but so is a free press

A new system to regulate the British press needs at least a year to settle in before it is wrapped up in a royal charter — not the other way around

By Alan Rusbridger  /  The Observer, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

Within a week of the Leveson report, about 20 newspaper editors met for breakfast in the retro faded splendor of the Delaunay Restaurant in London. After pulling down the blinds on the ground floor room (a tabloid editor predicted we could be papped), we got down to business.

The entire UK national press was there — from the Daily Star to the Financial Times. This never happens. The Spectator and Economist editors were around the table, with a Times (of London) reporter in attendance to take notes. James Harding, editor of the Times, chaired very efficiently.

Within two hours we had agreed the overwhelming majority of the 47 Leveson recommendations for establishing an independent self-regulatory regime for the press. Six clauses relating to statutory underpinning were rejected. Of the 41 remaining clauses, five were agreed with reasonable amendments and the remaining 36 passed.

“We agreed unanimously to accept the Leveson principles — save statutory underpinning ... on almost every point we accepted Lord Justice Leveson’s wording,” the minutes of the meeting said.

The editors went further. We welcomed an arbitration service as “a very significant innovation for both newspapers and the public to ensure swift, cheap and effective resolution of claims.”

We agreed the need for a recognition body to verify the new regulatory system and suggested a retired judge might chair it.

It was a historic moment: the full spectrum of the national press in total agreement with the main Leveson recommendations — with some tweaking at the edges and without statutory underpinning.

Within a week, Harding was out of a job and an unseen hand had decided that the 20 or so national editors in the room were not to be trusted with such things. We never met as a group again and the Delaunay agreement was never published.

Two Conservative peers were charged with representing the industry — a small irony given the recent cries of horror at the specter of political interference with the press — and a long period of private negotiations began with government ministers. What had seemed reasonably clear-cut on the morning of Dec. 5 last year became mired in hand-to-hand fighting over the details.

None of these discussions has been made public, and the other political parties and representatives of press abuses were largely excluded. Much has been made of Hacked Off’s role in the last stages of negotiations, but the press ensured they were excluded from the initial stages. Downing Street currently refuses to say who British Prime Minister David Cameron met or spoke to during this period.

These private meetings were completely against what Leveson himself wanted: He specifically asked for “immediate” transparency in any discussions about his report. Having spent a year looking at the problem of the press, politics and naked power, he wanted things to be done openly in future.

The press started introducing new conditions — for instance, that newspapers should be able to veto even the “independent” members of the regulator if they did not like the look of them and the government introduced a constitutional pantomime horse — a royal charter — to get round Leveson’s recommendation that a bit of statute was needed to bolster the entire arrangement.

A royal charter is, of course, a statute (as is the widely welcomed defamation bill) — but one introduced via the back door of Buckingham Palace rather than the front door of Westminster. Its political attraction was that it got Cameron off the hook of his post-Leveson “no statute” promise — and doubtless that it also allowed the Liberal Democrats and Labour to blur their initial insistence on “Leveson in full.”

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