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
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.