360° Analysis

UK Press Regulation: A Pantomime of Deceit and Disinformation


December 13, 2013 16:41 EDT

By rejecting the Royal Charter, the majority of the British press has done exactly the opposite of what it claims it wants to achieve: keep politicians out of press regulation.

On November 8, 2013, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) announced that it was sending an “unprecedented top-level press-freedom mission to the United Kingdom” as a “direct response to recent actions widely seen as contrary to press freedom guarantees: government interference in the regulation of the independent press, through the Royal Charter and associated legislation, but will also include discussion of the criticism of The Guardian for its coverage of the revelations from former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.”

Misunderstanding the Royal Charter

The ever so slight problem here, however, is that there has been absolutely no government interference in the press via the Royal Charter, whilst the government’s attacks on The Guardian, which are indeed a most serious assault on press freedom, have been loudly amplified and endorsed by newspapers such as The Sun, The Mail and The Telegraph. (Significantly, in its report of the “mission,” The Telegraph managed not to mention The Guardian aspect at all). Will the delegation be questioning these papers about their censorious actions, one wonders? And, while they’re about it, will they ask them why they campaign daily for Britain to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and abolish the Human Rights Act, Article 10 of which introduced for the first time to Britain a statutory right to freedom of expression?

The fact that part of the WAN-IFRA mission is based on a complete misunderstanding of what the Royal Charter entails is the result of a sustained campaign of distortion, disinformation and downright lies which has been conducted by most of the British national press (the exceptions being The Guardian, The Independent and Financial Times), not only in its own pages but on a global scale, ever since the Leveson Inquiry was announced.

As one of Britain’s greatest-ever journalists, Sir Harold Evans, put it in his Hugh Cudlipp lecture in January 2013, the misrepresentation of Leveson’s proposal for the statutory underpinning of press self-regulation has been “staggering,” and to portray it as state control is an “amazingly gross distortion.” Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today program in October, he further complained that “the exaggerations of some of the papers comparing Britain to Zimbabwe is so ridiculous, so self-interested as to destroy confidence in the very freedom of speech they claim to protect.”

Equally scathing about the press reaction to Leveson has been Nick Davies, the journalist whose work for The Guardian uncovered the phone hacking scandal in the first place (and which for years was assiduously ignored by every other national newspaper). Davies has accused the press of behaving like “spoilt children” and “throwing their toys out of the pram,” adding that “the hysterical squealing from some parts of Fleet Street that any reform is a threat to press freedom is childish and bullying.” And on the very day that I wrote this piece, the former Sun editor, David Yelland, delivered an absolutely stinging rebuke to the bulk of the British press, arguing that “one year on from Leveson, the country finds itself in a crazy place where facts don't seem to matter and generalisations are repeated so often that untruths almost seem truths,” and that “what we witnessed, post-Leveson, was pure hysteria. The press simply does not understand that it became the very thing it is there to attack: a vested interest. It did not listen but instead censored the public debate about itself. And it tried to bully anyone who had the temerity to challenge the party line.”

300 Years of Press Freedom

Because so much arrant nonsense has been written and spoken about the Charter introducing “state regulation” of the press and “ending 300 years of press freedom,” it’s extremely important to understand exactly what it does do. The Charter, which was a constitutional device brought into play in the first place only in an attempt to appease the press, was agreed by the Coalition and Labour parties on March 18, 2013, and, after massive obstruction on the part of the newspaper owners, was granted by the Privy Council on October 30, 2013.

Very briefly, it asks the press to devise its own system of self-regulation. This must contain three crucial ingredients: a board which is independent of both the press and politicians; a speedy and efficient complaints process with an arbitral arm; and a code of conduct, which will be administered by equal numbers of editors, journalists and lay members (unlike the present Code, which is administered solely by editors).

The Charter also establishes a recognition panel, which will not only ensure that the new self-regulatory body contains the above ingredients, but, every two to three years, will check that they are still present and functioning effectively. Appointments to the panel would be governed by a transparent mechanism which, again, would be designed to guarantee its independence from both the press and politicians. However, if newspapers refuse to recognize the panel, or if they establish a form of self-regulation that is not accepted by it, then they will be liable to exemplary damages in the event of civil court cases arising from stories which they have published recklessly.

The new arrangements will be entrenched in statute, simply so that they cannot be changed by ministers – either in order to water down regulation at the behest of the press, or to toughen it in order to please politicians and critics of the press. The relevant legislation doesn’t even mention the press specifically, but simply states that any Royal Charter that comes into being after March 2013 can be amended only if there is a two-thirds majority vote in both Houses of Parliament. This clause is absolutely essential, because bodies established by the Royal Charter are normally closely overseen by the Privy Council, which is in fact a committee of ministers. Thus, without the clause, ministers would be free to meddle with the new self-regulatory system, which would indeed give credence to those who claim that the new measures introduce a degree of “state control” over the press.

“State Regulation”

Now, even in simplified form, this may seem rather abstruse, but by no stretch of the imagination, however fevered, is this “state regulation” – it is merely an attempt to ensure that any new system of press self-regulation is effective and meaningful. Indeed, statutory underpinning of the new system is felt to be necessary only because the present system of “self-regulation,” as practiced by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), has been so dominated by the press interests which fund it, that it has proved to be utterly compromised and futile – except, of course, from the point of view of press owners and editors.  

Furthermore, the insistence on the new self-regulatory body’s independence from politicians is all the more vital given that the press industry has always ensured that the PCC is chaired by active working politicians, namely Lord McGregor (Social Democrat), Lord Wakeham (Conservative), Baroness Buscombe (Conservative), and Lord Hunt (Conservative).

Furthermore, the body which funds the PCC, the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBof), is chaired by yet another Conservative peer, Lord Black, who is also executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, and a former director of the PCC. That all but one of the chairs of the PCC have been Tories is, of course, absolutely no accident, since this mirrors the overwhelmingly dominant position of Tory newspapers in Britain’s national press.

However, the crucial point here is that the very last thing which the owners of most of Britain’s national newspapers desire, in spite of all their protestations to the contrary, is a regulatory system which is independent of politicians – or, rather, of the “right” kind of politicians. What they want is exactly what they’ve got, namely a set-up in which the dominant press interests are represented in Parliament by powerful and influential voices that help to ensure that legislation favorable to the press is passed and – crucially important at the present juncture – that pesky calls for reform are strongly resisted.

Thus, the press owners have rejected the Royal Charter, in so doing sticking up two fingers to the Queen, Parliament, and the will of the people (as represented both by Parliament and the numerous public opinion polls which show the British public to be overwhelmingly in favor of the arrangements proposed by Leveson). Instead, they intend to rebrand the wretched PCC as the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which, as the Media Standards Trust has conclusively demonstrated, threatens to be even more compromised than its feeble predecessor.

And just as during the passage of the Charter the press did its absolute utmost to try to ensure the deletion of the ban on working peers with party political affiliations holding senior positions in either the new self-regulator or the recognition panel, so, utterly predictably, party political peers and MEPs will be allowed onto the board of IPSO, the appointment panel, and the Complaints Committee.

So much for keeping politicians out of the press, then. But, of course, all this is entirely ignored in the papers’ raucous campaign against “state regulation.” This has prompted an increasing number of overseas bodies to issue dire warnings against what they have been led to believe is happening in the UK. Whether these have come from the Committee to Protect Journalists, or the six organizations that wrote to the Queen on October 23, 2013, the message has always been the same. In the words of the latter grouping: “The world still follows Britain in so many areas. If the UK moves to control the press through the force of law then it will have a terrifying knock-on effect throughout the Commonwealth and much of the developing world where Britain has a key leadership role … The actions of Britain’s Parliament will be used as an excuse by those who want to muzzle the press in their own country and stifle the free flow of information – and there are many governments who would love to do so.”

However, the truth of the matter, as we have seen, is that Britain’s Parliament has done absolutely none of the things of which it is accused here. Indeed, the really tragic irony of woefully ill-informed interventions such as this is that by giving the impression that this is what is happening in Britain, it is actually they who play into the hands of those who want to muzzle the press in authoritarian countries. Furthermore, the letter to the Queen is all the more absurd since its purpose was to ask her, an unelected, hereditary monarch, to block a measure that has been backed by every single party in the democratically elected House of Commons. For people who apparently care so passionately about democratic values, this is an utterly ludicrous position to adopt.

However, matters reached their absolute nadir when The Guardian, on November 11, 2013, revealed that Sri Lankan editors had written to David Cameron “urging him to put a stop to the royal charter on newspaper regulation, claiming it will serve as a blueprint for those who want to control the press around the world,” quoting them to the effect that “since countries like Sri Lanka regained their independence, and the advent of the Commonwealth, Britain acted as a beacon of freedom to the oppressed across the world. The actions of your government now send out a different blueprint to those seeking to control the press.”

Now, these courageous people really do know what it’s like to be subject not simply to state control but to state violence, and the fact that they felt compelled to waste their valuable time tilting at windmills, or, worse still, were prodded into doing so by British press interests, is the most resounding condemnation imaginable of all involved in this global pantomime of deceit, this charade of commercial self-interest masquerading as concern for democratic values. Any organization in Britain responsible for this state of affairs should be utterly ashamed of itself, but, given that this is the bulk of the British press that we’re talking about here, one can rest assured that “shame” is a word that doesn’t feature in their vocabulary – unless, of course, it’s applied to others, and particularly to those groups which it loves to demonize, which includes those campaigning for a genuinely free press.        

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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