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

Its drawback was that a royal charter needs to be uncontroversial (at minimum it must enjoy all-party support) and that it can be unpicked by ministers without the inconvenience of — or protection of — parliamentary debate. It was an unloved idea that garnered support if only because no one could think of a better one.

These private talks were, by all accounts, arduous and exhaustive. Government officials kept introducing new clauses in a bid to accommodate the new wishes of the press, but these, in turn, seemed unworkable and the longer the parties with the majority of votes in the Commons were excluded, the more suspicious they became of what they saw as a backroom stitch-up.

Nevertheless, when the details of the proposed deal emerged blinking into daylight in the middle of last month, most papers were prepared to support it — albeit through gritted teeth and with some detail still to sort out.

It is worth pausing to note the dogs that were not barking at this stage. No one claimed that the proposals marked an end to 300 years of press history — that John Milton, John Wilkes, John Stuart Mill and George Orwell were spinning in their respective graves.

That is not to say the press welcomed any of this. Like bankers, doctors and payday lenders, most journalists would like the least regulation possible, but this “Leveson-lite” deal — including an arbitration service with lower costs as an incentive to join and with a royal charter bolted on — was broadly acceptable.

Calmer heads in the press realized this was not statutory control of the press. It was not even statutory control of the independent regulator. It was privy council-sanctioned ground rules for the independent panel — not politicians or the press — who every so often would verify that the regulator was properly constituted and doing its job.

However, the problem with the “deal” was that Cameron could not deliver it. By insisting on private talks, and excluding all other political parties and stakeholders, the negotiators were simply storing up a problem. Another round of wider negotiations followed, not much more public than the last. Within a month, the mood in the press had changed and front pages were booming the death of freedom.

What changed?

Two main things and a few smaller, but potentially worrying, concerns. The new deal thrashed out in a hurry in the small hours by the three main political parties — now, at last, having a common conversation — insisted on “underpinning” the pantomime horse of a charter with a requirement that it could only be unpicked or amended by a two-thirds vote of parliament.

That — because it is a modest piece of Westminster, rather than palace “statute” — became the rallying cause for some editors and columnists to proclaim the end of liberty. They apparently felt liberty was better served by an arrangement under which ministers could quietly and privately negotiate the future of the press with equerries at the palace — just so long as parliament itself does not get a look in.

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