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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.