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Professor Brian Cathcart

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A Simple Choice: The Interests of the Public or the Self-Interest of the Press Barons

Posted: 20/07/2013 00:00

Leveson

Arguing with the press, it has been said, is like attending a dinner party where one of the guests speaks only through a megaphone. Meaningful dialogue is difficult.

So it is in the debate about press self-regulation. Every voice raised in support of Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations is drowned in the noise of editorial self-righteousness. The opinions of proprietors and editors simply fill the available airspace.

Even parliament's voice is hardly heard. On 18 March every party in parliament solemnly approved a Royal Charter embodying the Leveson recommendations, but how is that event presented to the public by most newspapers?

Not as an expression of the democratic will of the country, but as a dodgy deal hatched over pizza in the early hours, with Hacked Off in the room and the press inexcusably frozen out. Although not one detail of that second description of events is correct, it has been repeated so often and so loudly that no doubt many people now believe it.

History, of course, is repeating itself. As the Leveson Report made plain, over the past 60 years newspapers have always used the megaphone to defend their interests. It is only three years, after all, since almost every national paper was telling its readers that phone hacking was the work of a single rogue reporter.

But if the megaphone is powerful, that does not mean that the interests it is promoting must always triumph. Leveson showed the way.

The Leveson Inquiry memorably recorded that national newspapers had 'wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people' - people such as the Dowlers, whose daughter's voicemails were hacked after she was murdered, and the McCanns, libelled thousands of times after the disappearance of their child. There were also the many ordinary people subjected to intrusion, harassment and bullying by national papers, and the thousands whose private data were stolen.

Despite all this, Leveson still saw the best in the press and his proposals were so generous to the industry that they were reasonably described by past victims of press abuse as the very least that must be done to protect the public.

Leveson said the press should regulate itself, but that its regulator should meet specified standards of effectiveness and independence, and to prevent slippage it should also be tested against those standards every three years by a 'recognition body'.

It was vital, Leveson insisted, that politicians and government should have no influence on the operation of the regulator or of the recognition body. Nor should the regulator have the power of censorship or indeed any pre-publication remit at all. He wrote: "The board should not have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone, at any time... "

That is the scheme that all parties in parliament approved on 18 March. It was also supported by many victims of press abuses. A large number of opinion polls show that the public is also behind the Leveson scheme.

Leading national newspaper groups, however, object loudly. They have proposed instead their own new self-regulator, which would not satisfy the Leveson criteria and which would not be presented for inspection by the recognition body. Why not? It seems they won't accept an independent self-regulator that that makes them genuinely accountable under a clear code of standards on terms that could command public trust.

This is, remember, an industry, parts of which are in disgrace, condemned by a public inquiry for abusing blameless people and shown both by that inquiry and by Parliament how it should put its house in order. And it is saying no.

From the megaphone the message pours: 'We don't have to do anything anyone else tells us to do. We are heroes of free speech. If we don't say yes, that's the end of it. We can veto all this.' Other voices struggle to be heard.

They are wrong. It is not just up to them. We all have a voice, and a choice. We are all newspaper readers, and we are all potential victims of press abuse. Moreover, we all owe it to people like the McCanns and the Dowlers to ensure that similar outrages do not befall others.

Our choice is plain. Do we have the latest model, cosmetically-altered self-regulator designed to serve the interests of the industry that owns it, or do we have a truly independent body that meets standards proposed by an exhaustive public inquiry and protects citizens from abuse while also protecting free speech?

 

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