Why Britain Had to Act on Press Abuses

This is not a story that can be understood from headlines alone, partly because in Britain the headlines have so often wildly distorted the truth. Despite what you may have read, there is no threat by British politicians to interfere with press freedom. There is, however, a powerful consensus for change.

Americans may think the British have gone mad. In the homeland of John Wilkes and William Cobbett, of John Milton and John Stuart Mill, Parliament has backed the regulation of the press. Moreover, this is to be done using the medieval instrument of a royal charter. To outward appearances this is a lurch towards despotism, and not at all what one expects of a leading democracy in the 21st Century.

In this case, however, outward appearances deceive. This is not a story that can be understood from headlines alone, partly because in Britain the headlines have so often wildly distorted the truth. Despite what you may have read, there is no threat by British politicians to interfere with press freedom. There is, however, a powerful consensus for change.

It is not confined to one party but shared across the political spectrum to a degree rarely seen (a key vote in the House of Commons showed a majority of 530 to 13). Opinion polls show that public support is also very strong. The country's biggest journalists' organisation, the National Union of Journalists, backs the new measures, as do leading personalities associated with press freedom and free speech such as former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans and the playwright Tom Stoppard.

This strong momentum will come as no surprise to those who know the history of cruelty and wrongdoing by leading British newspapers, and the many promises of better behaviour that have always been broken. The scandal of phone hacking by employees of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World, which has unfolded since 2006, is but one of many outrages committed in recent years - and carefully covered up by that same press.

Murdoch himself once spoke of a 'great power for evil' that newspapers enjoy, meaning the power not to report, and so to conceal, matters of importance. That power has been used extensively in Britain, not just by Murdoch's papers but across most of an industry which cynically conspired to hide its misconduct from readers.

A public inquiry led by a leading judge, Sir Brian Leveson, left no doubt that these were not victimless failures. Newspaper journalists, he concluded, had too often "wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people, whose rights and liberties have been disdained". Nor could the problems be left to the courts, partly because the press was so good at concealment and partly because many of the cruelest abuses - persistent intrusion, bullying, harassment, distortion and fabrication - were simply not susceptible to criminal prosecution, as Leveson demonstrated.

The inquiry was established when politicians, themselves compromised by over-close relationships with editors and proprietors, finally bowed to public pressure to confront this history. The judge heard evidence from all interested parties, including many victims and most of the editors in what used to be called Fleet Street.

His conclusions were cautious, and - again contrary to what you may have read or heard - he took great pains to ensure that what he proposed "would not give any rights to Parliament, to the government, or to any regulatory (or other) body to prevent newspapers from publishing any material whatsoever".

These proposals have, after a delay of four months, been accepted by all of the political parties in the British Parliament, large and small. They have been framed as a royal charter, not because they are despotic or retrograde, but because prime minister David Cameron took the view that the alternative, formal legislation, might be deemed by its nature to impinge on press freedom.

How will the new system work? In many formal respects it will resemble the press self-regulation in place in Britain since 1990 - and accepted by most leading newspaper groups. There will be a code of standards, written mainly by journalists, and a complaints service for the public to use when the code has been breached. But unlike the old Press Complaints Commission, the new system will not be the servant and protector of the big newspaper groups.

To achieve this the charter creates a second body, the recognition panel, which must inspect the press self-regulator every three years and check that it meets essential criteria of effectiveness and independence.

There is no censorship here. No minister or other politician makes any of the appointments, nor can they serve on the board of either the self-regulator or the recognition panel, nor can they influence the funding of either body. And in line with the judge's undertaking, neither body has any power to prevent the publication of anything whatever.

What difference will it make? If the main newspapers participate (it is not compulsory, though there are advantages to membership in terms of legal costs) it will for the first time provide readers and those who are written about with an effective means of calling news publishers to account when journalists behave outside the bounds of their code of conduct.

Further, in cases where journalists are accused of breaching the civil law, the new system will offer a system of arbitration that is free for the plaintiff to access and cheap for the news publisher. Since the British libel and privacy courts are notoriously expensive this should be a boon for both sides.

If the reaction of leading parts of the British press to parliament's endorsement of this scheme has been hostile, that is no more than the predictable response to change of a longstanding vested interest, Britain's leading newspaper groups, most of which incidentally make hefty profits, are accustomed to a level of unaccountability that is simply not consistent with a healthy, rights-based democracy. Now they are being asked for the first time to take seriously the complaints of the public, and they do not like it.

This is not about press freedom in Britain. As Nick Davies, the investigative reporter at the Guardian who broke the phone hacking story, wrote when the Leveson report was published: "From a reporter's point of view, there is no obvious problem with the core of Leveson's report, his system of independent self-regulation... There is a nightmare here, but it is for the old guard of Fleet Street. To lose control of the regulator is to lose their licence to do exactly as they please".

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