THE BLOG

It Was Always Predictable the Press Would Try to Boycott Any Leveson-Compliant System

26/04/2013 10:59 BST | Updated 26/06/2013 10:12 BST

A recent Independent Police Complaints Commission report explains why Surrey Police did not investigate the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone. The reason, according to a senior officer, was the press were "untouchable and all powerful".

When you've been untouchable and all powerful and have successfully fought off seven previous government attempts to put an end to press abuse, you don't give your power up lightly. So the announcement that three newspaper groups have "rejected" the Royal Charter, recently agreed by a united House of Commons, is not surprising.

When Lord Justice Leveson held seminars before the Inquiry proper got underway, some tabloid editors displayed extreme arrogance, even hubris. They had been all-powerful for so long, they had forgotten about democracy and the rule of law. The mood persists with some of them. They still hope to defy the will of Parliament and the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the British people.

So will this latest attempt to thwart the Leveson proposals succeed? It was always predictable that they would try to boycott any Leveson-compliant system and hope it would disappear. The problem is they are faced with a Royal Charter, which has been drafted with just that ploy in mind.

The beauty of the Leveson proposals is that any newspaper can refuse. Under Leveson, the press is free. He has proposed no law to force them to accept his system. If it wishes, a newspaper can stay outside. And it really does not matter if it does.

A regulator will be set up, even if initially it's only backed by a few websites and bloggers and perhaps the odd newspaper. Once it's in place, the costs regime will kick in. A newspaper can refuse arbitration and continue to use the courts. But it will have to pay for the luxury.

The reality is that once cases start to come before the courts, it will quickly become apparent that it makes better business sense for a newspaper to join the regulator. The only problem for the refuseniks is they will have slightly less influence than had they been present when the body was first set up.

One of the problems with the Leveson proposals is that they are subtle. They were too subtle for many of us when they first came out and they are still too subtle for most of his critics. He was faced with the difficult task of keeping the press free from any form of state control yet stopping the worst elements abusing individuals, subverting government and corrupting the police.

How to do this without legislation? His solution is an entirely voluntary system, but one under which the press can save a great deal of money in legal costs provided they join. Meanwhile the rest of us get free access to justice, either under Leveson's simple inquisitorial arbitral system or in the courts, but with all the costs paid by the newspaper.

Of course this does not suit a tabloid editor. The last thing he wants is the general public to have free access to justice or to find his own rules enforced by an independent body. So once the regulator is in place, there will be a battle between the egos of the editors and the financial interests of the newspaper owners. It's not hard to guess who will win.

The more responsible newspapers may well get involved with the first serious attempt to form a regulator. They will want to have influence over the detail of how it will operate.

If the three newspaper groups maintain their boycott, the Recognition Panel will eventually report this to Parliament, but if the courts are applying Leveson's cost-shifting principles, there will be no need to intervene. Leveson is really all about costs. The exemplary damages provisions would only apply in rare and extreme circumstances.

So what about the three newspaper groups' rival charter? It's a nonsense but let them ask the Privy Council to set it up if they wish. A united Parliament has agreed the Royal Charter. It is already a compromise, but one which has all-party backing.

The political battle, which reached its climax in the House of Commons on 18 March, was about stabilising the Royal Charter - ensuring it could not be changed by ministers under pressure from the press. Following that vote, Parliament's consent will be needed to change it. The newspapers are no longer in control.