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No More Sleeping on the Job or Broken Promises Over Independent Press Regulation

19/04/2016 11:39

A free and fair press is central to any democratic society. It isn't for controlling politicians or self-serving editors to decide what constitutes freedom of speech or fairness. That must be determined by independent regulation.

With vested interests and dirty tricks undermining press in this country, the first part of The Leveson Inquiry looked at the culture, practice and ethics of newspapers. It set in train a cross party solution to securing independent press regulation. Instead of regulating by statute, it was agreed to establish a Royal Charter. As a result The Recognition Panel was founded to act as the independent body that develops standards and determines regulators fit for purpose.

The sham so-called regulator IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation) fails in that regard by a long way. Yet scrutiny of the application from Impress may lead to their recognition, it has nonetheless come under fire by IPSO members. Those attacks are designed to maintain cozy self-policing.

Leveson compliant press regulation is designed to stop editors colluding over Code abuses or holding power over politicians and indeed vise versa. Change is necessary because phone hacking by newspapers and expense scandals by politicians have broken trust.

The second part of The Leveson Inquiry is intended to examine misconduct in the press and police, which was due to follow the completion of criminal investigations triggered by the phone hacking scandal. With the Government obfuscating about Leveson 'picking up' phone hacking allegations on the conclusion of criminal action and holding out against implementing cost protection, it is only too evident that the Prime Minister is either sleeping on the job or breaking his promises to victims of press abuse.

So whilst it is right that John Whittingdale should step back from his responsibility for newspaper regulation after recently admitting having a relationship with a sex worker, that should apply as Leveson intended for all those holding the post of Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

There is no place for a responsible Minister being compromised by a perceived threat of damaging revelations. When the thirst for publishing sensational stories about high profile figures doesn't apply to the Minister responsible for media, it is inescapable to think a silent conspiracy is afoot. To claim publication wasn't in the 'public interest' has no credibility when considered alongside their track record and the current celebrity action under consideration at the Supreme Court.

Government Ministers have a right to privacy and isn't proper to moralise about their lives. The concern is about undue influence or the perception of it. That's the public interest - a Secretary of State with a story hanging over him and potentially influencing Government policy.

This latest conflict of interest surely illustrates there is little point in David Cameron slumbering through business as usual and backtracking on Leveson. Failing to keep promises made to victims of press abuse is nothing short of betrayal. Turning a blind-eye to serious allegations of high-level corruption and collusion between the press, police, politicians and judiciary is unacceptable.

The Crime and Courts Act (2013) S40 is the crucial "awards of costs" incentive. Following secret meetings with newspaper proprietors, this is what John Whittingdale has indicated the Government may not implement. This clause is important for access to justice as it gives ordinary people protection from paying court costs, even if they lose their case against newspapers. Without such protection claimants of modest means are forced to rely on Conditional Fee Arrangements and insurance. Consequently, they are scared off bringing a claim altogether.

Equally there is incentive for Newspapers if they join an approved regulator and offer the low-cost arbitration required. The Royal Charter protects newspapers belonging to a Leveson compliant regulator from paying the costs of wealthy litigants if taken to court, even if they lose.

I joined other victims of press abuse three weeks ago in an exasperating meeting with John Whittingdale, to urge the Government to implement cost protection. Not even a weasel compromise, but a definite refusal to act. We directly asked him if the press had anything on him, but that suggestion was firmly rebutted. As we now know, that wasn't true.

The Government is wrong to unilaterally break a cross party agreement and it is an abuse of Parliament's will by failing to implement cost incentives. If they think that circumstances have changed, requiring a different cause of action, then they should be seeking repeal or an alternative solution. By Government Ministers sitting on their hands, victims are let down and newspapers are given free reign. It is an abdication of responsibility, sleep-walking into prejudice and abuse, more broken promises and a lost opportunity to secure a truly independent press.

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