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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.

Maria Miller speaking at the 2013 Conservative Party conference. Photo: Getty

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.