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Professor Steven Barnett

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Lesson From History - A Message to David Cameron

Posted: 08/10/2013 11:50

We have been here before. Delays, legal manoeuvres, and desperate scaremongering as the national press tries to stave off even the mildest form of accountability.

Self-serving politicians desperate to suppress the truth? Try this: "One of the greatest canards of the past few years has been that 'ordinary' people need privacy laws to protect them from a rapacious Press. This mantra is chanted incessantly by politicians when in fact what they really want is protection for themselves." (Daily Mail, 30 July, 1993).

Terrifying visions of North Korean style Orwellian censorship? Try this: "The prospect of a grey body of censors fining newspapers and ordering editors to appear before it deserves every comparison with Ceausescu's Romania or Verwoerd's South Africa - or indeed Orwell's Big Brother." (Mail on Sunday, 24 June 1990).

Courageous newspapers standing up for transparency against the forces of darkness and conspiracy? Try this: "The truth is that the establishment would like to shackle the press. Those in positions of power want to withhold and restrict information about them which the public has a right to know." (Today newspaper - now defunct, prop. Rupert Murdoch, 30 July 1993).

If these excerpts from newspaper editorials over 20 years ago sound familiar, so is the context. During the 1980s, newspapers had (again) been guilty of flagrant breaches of ethical standards, wilful distortion of the truth, and gross intrusions into private lives. Then, it was the hounding of television presenter Russell Harty as he lay dying in his hospital bed, the concocted murders during a Strangeways prison riot, the one million pound libel settlement to Elton John from the Sun, the same paper's grossly insensitive and inaccurate reporting of the Hillsborough tragedy, and multiple invasions into the private lives of ordinary people and the Royal Family.

Galvanised into action both by public revulsion and a series of private members' bills on Privacy and Right to Reply, the government announced in April 1989 a review of press regulation under Sir David Calcutt.

Proprietors and editors prostrated themselves before Calcutt, conceded that on occasion they might have overstepped the mark, but pleaded for one more chance to get self-regulation right. After much deliberation, the Calcutt committee published its report in June 1990 and recommended a new self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission, which should be "authoritative, independent, and impartial".

In the House of Commons, the Home Secretary David Waddington stated categorically that Calcutt's report was "positively the last chance for the industry to establish an effective non-statutory system of regulation" and that failure to respond would oblige the government to set up a statutory regime. Just as his minister, David Mellor, had famously warned that the popular press was "drinking in the last chance saloon".

And so the PCC was born in January 1991, definitively and unconditionally the last chance for self-regulation. Newspapers bobbed and weaved, professing to implement Calcutt, but quietly discarding the parts they didn't like and interpreting "independent" with - to put it politely - a degree of flexibility. They made sure that the industry controlled the regulator, the code, and the sanctions (sounds familiar?).

Calcutt himself wasn't fooled by the manoeuvring. After 18 months, he was asked to review the new system and in January 1993 published a damning - and prescient - report. He was unequivocal:

"[The PCC] is not the truly independent body which it should be. As constituted, it is, in essence, a body set up by the industry, financed by the industry, dominated by the industry, and operating a code of practice devised by the industry and which is over-favourable to the industry."

By then, the political climate had changed. The Prime Minister, John Major, commanded a very small majority and his own authority was under threat. The PCC purported to raise its game, and political expediency dictated inaction: "do nothing" became the preferred option, and Calcutt was kicked into the long grass.

Within five years, as Tony Blair reminded us in his Leveson evidence, this body designed as an independent complaints mechanism for victims of press abuse was brazen enough to lobby against section eight of the Human Rights Act which protects the individual's right to privacy!

Major himself was forthright in his evidence to Leveson, calling Calcutt and its aftermath a "missed opportunity". He went further: "If these changes had been made, I don't think many of the things that subsequently happened would have happened." David Cameron was quick to agree, telling Leveson: "I thought John Major's evidence about what went wrong with the Calcutt process and the outcome of that in not being able to deliver the changes was instructive, and we have to do better."

And now, it seems, Cameron has personally intervened to delay the cross-party Charter yet again. Meanwhile, the press are in full-throated scaremongering mode, orchestrating precisely the kind of lobby which undermined Calcutt 20 years ago: the same menacing threats about 300 years of press freedom, the same tired cries about self-interested politicians, the same vacuous and absurd claims to be delivering "the toughest press regulatory regime anywhere in the free world". Just as they did 20 years ago, immensely powerful and self-interested corporations are masquerading as guardians of the public good.

There is little doubt now, except in the minds of a few delusional old-timers, that the PCC was manipulated by the industry and failed catastrophically. If we go down that route again, the combination of ferocious competition within the national newspaper market and declining circulations - exacerbated by a newsroom culture which remains trenchantly unapologetic about past excesses - will guarantee yet more victims of press mistreatment. If David Cameron skewers the cross-party Charter, we can be absolutely certain that the cycle of abuse will continue.

Parliament has delivered its verdict, with overwhelming support from the public, and it's now up to Cameron to hold his nerve. This might also be the moment for our Prime Minister to recall his own words to the Inquiry, reflecting on the history of press regulation reform: "there are dangers to the public interest if politicians fail to set their own agenda rather than merely respond to media campaigns.... . The electorate are capable of seeing through politicians who are weak in the face of pressure, including me".

Yes, Prime Minister.....

 

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