We need a free press, not a calm, pretty one

The cross-party plan for press regulation is unlikely to work, nor should we let it. Anyway, those proposing greater regulation of the press overestimate its influence and underestimate the good sense of their readers.

The press in this country is not pretty, but it is free.

That was Ian Hislop's view as the media picked over the remains of the Press Charter regulator, which died on the flow of the Commons yesterday, put to death by Culture secretary Maria Miller in favour of the cross-party Royal Charter.

The worry is that underlying this move to regulate the press is a desire to somehow make us pretty, to smooth the rough edges and make a raucous bundle of publishers just, well, calm down.

It is unlikely to work, nor should we let it.

The objections of the press to the cross-party plan are legion. Firstly there is the principle, that at its very heart it accepts the principle that Parliament should have a hand in defining journalism. For many that is a line that should not be crossed.

We should remember too that the UK sets a template for press regulation across the world, many have used the Press Complaints Commission as their model for regulation and it is worrying to think that some will be casting an eye on a regulator approved by politicians and thinking it to their liking.

Secondly, there is the so-called carrot of reduced arbitration costs for those publishers inside the new regulatory regime. Those outside could face exemplary damages if they lose a libel or privacy case, and possibly pick up everyone's costs even if they win. This is no carrot, it is a stick, you can paint it orange and tell the Press it is a carrot all you want, they know a big stick when they see one.

Thirdly, there is very little in this new regime for regional newspaper publishers. They genuinely believe the new regulator will cost them considerably more than the PCC, which they can ill afford. The reduced costs mean nothing to them, they very rarely fight libel and privacy actions, they settle them. It is worth remembering that the regional press, which outsells the national press and then some every day, did nothing to cause this crisis and the PCC was very effective in regulating it and providing redress to those who complained about local papers.

The behaviour of some journalists, on some papers, that got us here was ethically unacceptable. It was also against the law. If someone is prepared to break the law, there are few ethical codes in the world that will stop them. To expect the Press Complaints Commission, which has no investigators on its payroll, to pick up a ball so comprehensively fumbled by the Metropolitan Police is unreasonable.

Those who say we do not have a free press, but one owned by a few powerful "press barons" make two mistakes. Firstly, they define the press solely by national papers, and tabloids at that. There are a multitude of local papers out there with all sorts of owners, and magazines as well, all of which will come under the new regulator.

Secondly, if they want to fight a war on press ownership, they should do that. They are entitled to dislike the influence wielded by Rupert Murdoch and other owners if they want to, but they ought to be honest and fight a battle over plurality of ownership, not regulation.

The typical journalist in this country has to know a multitude of laws just to do their daily job - libel, contempt, reporting restrictions, copyright, juveniles, sex offences and privacy just for a start. The last thing they need is more regulation and less freedom.

Fundamentally, those proposing greater regulation of the press overestimate its influence and underestimate the good sense of their readers, summed up by Mr Justice Lawton in the trial of the Krays, when he said: "I have enough confidence in my fellow countrymen to think that they have got newspapers sized up, just as they have got other public institutions sized up, and they are capable in normal circumstances of looking at a matter fairly and without prejudice."

If it comes down to a choice between being pretty, or free, we should choose being free.

Maria Miller speaking at the 2013 Conservative Party conference. Photo: Getty
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How Theresa May is trying to trap her opponents over Brexit

An amendment calling on MPs to "respect" the referendum outcome is ammunition for the battles to come. 

Theresa May is making a habit of avoiding unnecessary defeats. In the Richmond Park by-election, where the Liberal Democrats triumphed, the Conservatives chose not to stand a candidate. In parliament, they today accepted a Labour motion calling on the government to publish a "plan for leaving the EU" before Article 50 is triggered. The Tories gave way after as many as 40 of their number threatened to vote with the opposition tomorrow. Labour's motion has no legal standing but May has avoided a symbolic defeat.

She has also done so at little cost. Labour's motion is sufficiently vague to allow the government to avoid publishing a full plan (and nothing close to a White Paper). Significantly, the Tories added an amendment stating that "this House will respect the wishes of the United Kingdom as expressed in the referendum on 23 June; and further calls on the Government to invoke Article 50 by 31 March 2017". 

For No.10, this is ammunition for the battles to come. If, as expected, the Supreme Court rules that parliament must vote on whether to trigger Article 50, Labour and others will table amendments to the resulting bill. Among other things, these would call for the government to seek full access to the single market. May, who has pledged to control EU immigration, has so far avoided this pledge. And with good reason. At the Christian Democrat conference in Germany today, Angela Merkel restated what has long been Europe's position: "We will not allow any cherry picking. The four basic freedoms must be safeguarded - freedom of movement for people, goods, services and financial market products. Only then can there be access to the single market."

There is no parliamentary majority for blocking Brexit (MPs will vote for Article 50 if the amendments fall). But there is one for single market membership. Remain supporters insist that the 23 June result imposed no conditions. But May, and most Leavers, assert that free movement must be controlled (as the Out campaign promised). 

At the moment of confrontation, the Conservatives will argue that respecting the result means not binding their hands. When MPs argue otherwise, expect them to point to tomorrow's vote. One senior Labour MP confessed that he would not vote for single market membership if it was framed as "disrespecting Brexit". The question for May is how many will prove more obstructive. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.