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

The House of Lords has the opportunity to amend the badly executed elements of last week’s late-night meeting. Failing that, there is an alternative — which may be rather closer in spirit to what Leveson intended. Let former Supreme Court judge Lord Phillips and Commissioner for Public Appointments Sir David Normington establish an appointments process for the regulator. Allow this new regulator (under a new and independent chairman, preferably not yet another Conservative peer) to sort out the outstanding details of regulation with the press. Do this in a transparent way that will allay the fears of other concerned parties. Do not allow the press any veto on who gets to sit on the regulator.

Separately, establish an independent recognition panel — again free of press or political involvement. Equip it with a copy of the Leveson report and the minutes of all the meetings between politicians and the press since November last year, which helpfully flesh out its meanings and ambiguities. Let them reach a judgement on whether the new regulator is, and does, what Leveson had in mind.

Allow the system to bed in for a year or so, and for a dialogue between regulator and recognizer about what works and what needs tweaking. Then, and only then, think about wrapping it all up in a royal charter. People may by then have a clearer idea of the value of an endorsement by Buckingham Palace. A charter should in other words seal the deal, not describe it.

If the press can show it is committed to a truly independent system that works then there may be less need for royal cement. Real independence matters more than statute and there may need to be a hard deadline to keep up the pressure on the press.

Designing a voluntary regulation system in the age of the Internet is not a simple task — which is why Leveson did not get it perfectly right even after a year of thinking, consulting and listening. It is worth reflecting that some of the same people currently decrying the current proposals as state licensing of the press were themselves recently proposing a system by which only card-carrying “accredited” journalists would be given access to official press conferences, the police, sporting events or medical and scientific bodies — and that journalists could be “struck off” an approved register, rather like the General Medical Council and doctors.

So, no one has the monopoly of principle, but this much is clear — the old system of regulation was feeble. Leveson uncovered much that was shameful about significant parts of the press — with more dismaying allegations doubtless soon to emerge in the courts. The most powerful newspaper group in the country was — on the kindest interpretation — out of control. The police and parliament were cowed.

Reform is badly needed. So is a free press. Achieving both cannot be done at speed or in the dark.

Alan Rusbridger is editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media.

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