Despite the considerable debate and dominating news coverage there has been on Leveson and whether the government will implement its recommendations, not many people are really sure on what this translates into, in real terms, for the future of the press.
Lord Leveson’s recommendations included a new independent regulator, with the power to fine newspapers, make them print retractions and apologies, in the case of inaccuracies or unethical behaviour.
However, he said that this could only work if it was underpinned by legislation. He also said that the government should not be involved in the regulation of the press. As it is the politicans themselves who are involved in the making of legislation, the two statements appear contradictory.
His final phrase ‘now we must decide who is to guard the guards,’ is rather fitting with the phrase ‘who watches the watchmen?’ and other variations which crop up regularly in popular culture, literature and film. Who controls those who are meant to control?
Journalists and the media exist in the fourth estate to hold the politicians to account – taxpayers pay for them, and elect them to run our country. It is in the public interest to scrutinise their work, and to ensure they stick to their promises.
David Cameron insists there will be a clause which ensures that the politicians cannot fiddle with this Charter at a later date, which will be ratified by the Queen and not technically law. So, therefore, it’s not technically obligatory to join – and we’ve seen this with a number of publications voting to stay out of it. Will it really make an impact, then?
Press freedoms have existed in more or less the same form since 1695, when the Licensing Act lapsed and a decision was taken by the government not to renew it. The immediate flood of publications in the form of pamphlets, newspapers and other forms of literature soon followed, which was curbed by the Stamp Tax in the early 1700s. By 1712 there was a steady flow of newspapers in regular circulation, and everything seemed to calm down a bit.
To go back to state censorship would be draconian, and Lord Leveson doesn’t advocate this sort of control at all. While it would be true that it would be the first time that such a law would affect the press, this implies that the press is not subjected to law currently, which is not the case. They are subject to libel and defamation laws, restrictions on reporting court cases, minors and sexual offences.
This vague and basic editorial in the New York Times earlier this week follows along that idea that statutory regulation would take British press back to the 1600s, proves that a curbing of press freedoms just doesn’t comprehend with the values and ideologies of America (that, and they don’t really know what they’re talking about – the legislation wasn’t abolished, the act lapsed, no one ever said anything about wanting to be undemocratic, etc. etc.).
It’s clear that some of the press can’t be trusted with choosing who should set up this independent body, and how it should be run. The failures in the Press Complains Commission, and within editorial departments of a number of publications have proved this. However, it is crucial that they are involved. The sidelining of the press from the late night meetings last Sunday as the politicians bashed out an agreement with Hacked Off, was unfair and unjust: law should not be made by the victims.
It’s also clear, the some politicians cannot be trusted with this either. They have an agenda, whether they choose to admit it or not, and what is best for them, best for the press and best for the citizens of Britain far from overlap. The police have shown their susceptibility to taking bribes from the press, and the expenses scandal of 2008 needn’t be explained to show that in positions of power, some politicians do take advantage.
So what is to be done? Who is to ‘guard the guards’? By all means, there is no perfect answer. What I propose, however, is a bit of mediation. More communication, more talks and more integration needs to be done in order to come up with the right plans. No newspaper except the Independent (hesitantly) has signed up to be a part of the Royal Charter, and many more have openly stood up against it.
An option I feel that has yet to be explored is the opportunity of an internally elected, or at least representative independent committee to regulate the press. This should consist of policy makers, members of the press, investors, lawyers, other experts and the general public. A jury service for the press. It could ensure a variety of opinions could sit on this committee and work collaboratively to ensure the press behaviour is kept fair and accurate for all that are involved.
Could that work? Too simplistic or too complicated? Let me know your thoughts @tashy_meep.