Hacked Off needs to know when to stop fighting

In danger of plucking defeat out of the jaws of victory.

The campaign group Hacked Off is beginning to resemble a rebel force which doesn’t know when to stop fighting. And it is in danger of plucking defeat out of the jaws of victory with a state-imposed system of press regulation which is set to go to the Queen for approval at the next meeting of the Privy Council on 15 May. This is because there is no point in creating a perfect theoretical system of press regulation which no-one uses.

Hacked Off got a dream deal on 18 March when the three main political parties agreed to a beefed-up Royal Charter-backed system of press regulation. The dream goes that the new regulator will be completely independent of Parliament and the press, editors will be in a minority on its code committee and it will have the ability to compel placement of front-page apologies.

It is backed up by two pieces of legislation which made their way on to the statute books last week. Under the Enterprise and Regulator Reform Act the Royal Charter, once okayed by the Privy Council, cannot be changed without a two thirds majority of both houses of Parliament. Under the Crime and Courts Act, news publishers outside the state-approved regulator will be subject to exemplary damages and increased libel and privacy case legal costs (except for a large list of exempt titles including blogs which turn over less than £2m and council-run newspapers).

For Hacked Off it is the perfect solution. Perfect except for the fact that most of the newspaper and magazine industry have now said they cannot stomach it. And without the buy-in of publishers themselves a new system of self-regulation cannot work.

Publishers have rebelled because they refuse to surrender total control over the regulator. That is no longer self-regulation as envisaged by Leveson, they say, and in any case they question why they should fund and organise what is effectively a quango. The regional press is deeply concerned that the arbitration arm set out in the Charter will lead to “crippling” new libel claims being made against them. And there remains a profound principled objection to a statute-backed system of regulation being imposed on publishers by the state. Their solution is to resolutely reject the Government plan and instead offer their own Royal Charter.

The main differences between their plan and the Government one are outlined here, but in a nutshell the publishers want:

  • A representative on the Recognition Panel which will licence the new regulator (and the ability to veto appointments to the board)
  • An arbitration arm which is optional rather than obligatory
  • No legislative underpinning but instead a system where a unanimous vote of the Recognition Panel, the regulator’s board and the various industry trade associations can agree to amend the charter.

The two sides are not so far apart that a deal cannot be done. But this will need publishers, representatives of the ‘victims’ and Parliamentarians to put down their rhetorical weapons and  negotiate.

The press cannot be compelled to join a regulator which most publishers fundamentally disagree with any more than the Government can regulate any citizen’s right to express themselves as they wish (within the bounds of libel, privacy and the criminal law on contempt of court).

If the Government Royal Charter to regulate the press is signed by the Queen in two week’s time, some publishers could ignore it and create their own regulator taking a chance on exemplary damages rules which may, in any case, be unenforceable. Many more titles might opt to be part of no regulator at all leaving the victims of future press excesses and mistakes with nowhere to turn. So for the sake of the victims, Hacked Off (like the publishers) now has to take a more pragmatic approach.

Hugh Grant, Hacked Off campaigner. Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage