THE BLOG

Press Regulation: The Missing Link Is Concentrated Ownership

19/03/2013 14:08 GMT | Updated 18/05/2013 10:12 BST

The picture of Winston Churchill on the front page of 18 March's Sun exhorting MPs to vote for a 'free press' and to reject proposals for independent press regulation is entirely appropriate: never has so much rubbish been written by so many columnists for so little reward. In these circumstances, it is not the freedom of the press that is under threat but the credibility of some of its leading commentators.

Just consider a recent column by the Sun's political editor, Trevor Kavanagh. Not only does he claim that proposals for a Leveson-compliant Royal Charter "risk an irreparable blow to foundations of true democracy" but he actually has the cheek to claim that the press would no longer be able to investigate things like Hillsborough - a scandal unleashed by his newspaper's outrageous lies about the behaviour of Liverpool fans back in 1989 and a cover-up that his newspaper did nothing to reveal.

Nick Cohen argued in the March 17 edition of the Observer that the plan for press regulation eventually agreed by all three parties in Parliament is the result of what happens when "'progressives' run riot and smash the liberties they are meant to defend". This is presumably in contrast to the far more progressive practices of hacking people's phones for no evident public interest, doing secret deals with the police, lobbying politicians behind closed doors and generally devoting far more resources to courting power than holding it to account.

Benedict Brogan in the Telegraphinsisted that proposals to curb unethical journalism are all about the left taking its revenge on years of being marginalised and humiliated - nothing to do with any bad behaviour on the part of the press themselves. We will now apparently end up "with a system of press regulation that will be the most draconian of anywhere in the free world. The Americans will be gobsmacked by it; in Moscow, Harare and wherever else we like to lecture about freedom they will have a laugh". Yes, because up until now, no British newspaper has had anything to do with state control - except for already being subject to multiple forms of statute, from contempt of court to libel, and for happily taking some £600million of public money in the shape of exemption from VAT.

Hypocrisy and hysteria has marked the reactions of whole sections of the press when faced with a challenge to their own power. But remember that it was precisely the abuse of this power that led to the phone hacking scandal, that was uncovered during the Leveson Inquiry, that was mobilised in attacking Leveson's conclusions and that, most recently, has resulted in cross-party agreement for a Royal Charter.

Is the model of regulation contained in the Royal Charter strong enough to tackle this kind of press power? There are certainly elements of the deal that should help to iron out some of the worst examples of intrusion and inaccuracy and to provide the basis for a more ethical press. Ordinary journalists and members of the public will be part of the process of drawing up a new code while preventing editors from having a veto over membership of the new regulator is already a step forward from the utterly discredited, industry-dominated Press Complaints Commission. Allowing for third party complaints is another significant step forward so that, finally, there can be more challenges to those titles that take pleasure in scapegoating and stereotyping vulnerable groups like asylum seekers and refugees. Access for ordinary people to a free arbitration system as well as the regulator's power to insist on prominent corrections and apologies should also help to stop some of the most damaging aspects of sensationalist journalism. For their persistence in refusing to buckle under the pressure exerted both by the industry and David Cameron (who is now claiming credit for the deal when it was his political weakness that made it virtually inevitable), the victims' representatives, Hacked Off, deserve real credit.

Yes, there remain concerns about how the new regulator is going to deal with whistleblowing, data protection, journalists' sources and now whether all news-related websites are going to be subject to the model laid out in the Charter. Given the fact that the deal was struck in private - a rather ironic reflection of the criticism made by many during the Leveson Inquiry that too many deals between press and politicians are made in secret - it is no surprise that there is confusion over whether the rules would apply to a site like Counterfire or whether they are aimed specifically at the online versions of mass-circulation titles and, as the culture secretary put it, at 'news-related material in the course of a business'. The difference is crucial: it was the most powerful voices in the media who were found to have hacked phones, bribed police officers and bullied journalists and it should be they who should be subject to the new guidelines.

Of course, the effectiveness of the scheme depends both on the ability of the regulator to stand up to press power and the willingness of the press to be subject to the new rules. Some titles may even choose to stand outside the system and use their wealth as a shield against what they see as an affront to their freedom to bully, distort and, as Lord Justice Leveson put it, to "wreak havoc on the lives of innocent people".

More significantly, however, the Royal Charter does nothing to change the cause of the arrogance, complacency and neoliberal orthodoxy of newspapers like the Mail, Sun, Express and Telegraph: the fact that the British press is dominated by a handful of giant corporations whose responsibility is not to the public but to shareholders and proprietors hungry for profits and power. Changing the culture of the British press requires not just better codes and a more forceful means of persuading newspapers to play by the rules (though this would be very welcome both for ordinary journalists and the public) but will involve a challenge to an ownership structure that has placed the press in the hands of a tiny group of oligarchs and moguls. How can our media be said to be genuinely free when it is subject to the diktat of men like Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre, the Barclay Brothers and Richard Desmond? Tackling ownership concentration has to be next on the agenda.