Saturday, March 23, 2013
Press Regulation: Dog's Breakfast or a 'Better Democracy'?
1. Supposedly we've had no press regulation by the government for 300 years. But surely our legal system offers a form of press regulation? In terms of libel laws this can be pretty strict too.
2. Surely the people who own the media- Murdoch, Rothermeres et. al- exert more than a little control over what is allowed to appear in the press and other outlets? In other words, it's never been exactly 'free'?
3. Has it not been proved beyond all doubt by Leveson that voluntary press regulation has not worked satisfactorily in the past and is unlikely to do so in the future?
4. Other countries like Germany, France and Sweden have laws regulating their presses without worldwide condemnation or accusations that they have abandoned
Having partly laid out my stall on the topic I'm aware of the vigorous debate on the issue. Opinion has veered wildly on this issue ever since Leveson began to interrogate his witnesses. Initially, shocked by the revelations, a consensus seemed to emerge that the press needed to be brought to heel. Hacked Off were promised Leveson's recommendations by Cameron and we kind of expected an easy route to a new world of regulation. Then Dave called a halt to the consensus and would not hear of any statutory control to sully Britain's shining record as freer and free media country.
Then voices in the press itself were raised praising Dave's principled stand, while Miliband and Clegg agreed the full Leveson rather than half of him was essential.Deadlock ensured until the three party leaders got together and sought to find a solution based around the idea of a Royal Charter, an ancient device which, it was hoped, would deliver the benefits of statute without any of the costs.. Nearly there, or so we are told, Dave called them off, claiming the distance between the three parties was too great to be bridged. Deadlock again! Then Monday morning 18th March, we are told they've been up all night eating kit-kats and reaching an agreement. It seems Dave has conceded on several key points. Hooray! we cry that the divisive vote has been superseded by an agreement which seems to satisfy everyone. The honeymoon lasted about five minutes.The Economist sketched in the essence of the measure:
To deter future political meddling, the charter specifies that it cannot be altered without a two-thirds majority in both the Commons and the Lords. A short clause added to an unrelated bill gives that supermajority requirement the force of law This seemed like a canny compromise. It enabled Mr Cameron to claim he was not creating a press statute while allowing Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband, who favour much tougher regulation, to assert they had done precisely that. Bar a few Tory rebels, MPs also welcomed another measure, which would impose punitive damages on any misbehaving newspaper that elected not to join the new system of regulation.
But the efficacy of the new scheme depends on how many publications sign up and already we see The Telegraph, and Mail groups plus news International, not to mention The Spectator and Private Eye, reject the package. The Economist notes the collaboration between Clegg and Miliband and wonders if it presages the shape of a coalition after 2015. It concludes on a pessimistic note however:
An altogether more optimistic analysis is offered by David Putnam in The guardian today:
I hope the events of this past week signify that we have collectively turned the page, and that politicians of all persuasions now recognise that the regulation of the media, entirely independent of government, and backed by appropriate powers of civil enforcement, is one of the fundamental guarantors of a healthy democracy in the 21st century.