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Leader: Press reform is too important to be cooked up in a late-night deal

The New Statesman does not see its interests served by regulation designed to suit politicians.

“The only security of all is in a free press.” Thomas Jefferson

The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution: change in these islands has been mostly gradual and pragmatic – and often quite messy, in the British way. We have tended to nudge our way to reform. It is no surprise that our press has been free for more than 300 years and that we have preferred self-regulation to state regulation. Our newspapers have often been crass and vulgar and they have committed many wrongs. But they are a reflection of British society, for better and worse.

For anyone who believes in a free press, the events of recent days – with late-night deals being agreed between politicians and lobby groups – have been dispiriting and enraging. In the middle of the Commons debate on press regulation on 18 March, Nick Clegg joked that if the three main parties continued to be as non-partisan after the next general election as they had been over Leveson, “there won’t be room for everyone in Downing Street”.

His optimism may very quickly appear premature, as the newspaper industry’s response to the outcome of the debate – a royal charter to set up a press regulator and a law to extract exemplary damages from those who choose to stay outside it – has been dismissive.

The press has good reason to be sceptical of this proposal. Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times, accurately described the negotiations as a “horse-trader’s ball”. Reports emerged on Monday of an unedifying scene unfolding late into the night in Ed Miliband’s office in Westminster, with representatives from the campaign group Hacked Off present to lobby the ministers working on a deal.

The word that sums up the whole progress of the negotiations since Lord Justice Leveson published his report in November is chaotic. First came Rupert Murdoch’s abrupt dismissal of the editor of the Times James Harding, a thoughtful and respected journalist who was leading a co-ordinated response to Leveson.

Then came Labour peers’ baffling decision to attach wrecking amendments to necessary legislation such as the Defamation Bill. This precipitated David Cameron’s decision to impose an arbitrary deadline on reaching a deal by scheduling a vote in parliament on 18 March. This began a race to thrash out an acceptable compromise.

In the rush that followed, confusion reigned. Hours after the deadlock was broken the Labour deputy leader, Harriet Harman, took to the airwaves to boast that a deal had been done. Then the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, appeared on the Today programme soon afterwards to say it had not. It took the rest of the day for the royal charter to emerge – and when it did, it became obvious that it was hastily composed and incoherent.

The definition of “publisher” covered by the new regulator was set out as not just either a newspaper or a political and cultural magazine, such as the New Statesman, but also “a website containing news-related material”. This threatened to drag in personal blogs and social media accounts; in effect, it would try to “regulate the internet”, a completely impossible task, and one not covered by Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry or recommendations. Downing Street once again tried to brief that this was not the case but failed to explain exactly what was meant by “news-related material”. The danger is that bloggers will now find themselves subject to “exemplary damages”, imposed by a regulator that they were never originally supposed to join.

In addition, as Jonathan Dimbleby, the distinguished broadcaster and chairman of Index of Censorship, warned: “The two-thirds block on any changes to the royal charter could be abused in the future – not least when today’s emerging consensus shows that the parties can come together in both houses to agree on press regulation.”

We are not opposed to the principle of press reform: the Press Complaints Commission was feeble and utterly supine, incapable of investigating wrongdoing or holding newspaper owners to account. It is right, as the press has accepted, that the new regulator have the power to compel front-page apologies, launch investigations and levy fines of up to £1m.

Similarly, the Leveson inquiry was a useful process and helped expose nefarious practices. The subsequent “horsetrader’s ball”, however, has been a nauseating spectacle.

It is possible that the right-wing titles of Associated Newspapers (which owns the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday), the Telegraph Group and News International (the Sun, the Sun on Sunday, the Timesand the Sunday Times) will entirely reject the royal charter and propose a breakaway “independent” regulator of their own. In a supreme irony, we might see the Daily Mail appealing to the European Court of Human Rights – an entity it has often decried as something close to Stalinist – for help in protecting its “freedom of speech”.

Any “independent regulator” set up by this group would inevitably be stuffed with its placemen and it is hard to see how they would have the moral authority to dictate to others. The press con - tinues to show little or no contrition for the abuses that forced the establishment of the Leveson inquiry. Meanwhile, one of the biggest issues in the British media – the question of the concentration of ownership – remains ignored.

That self-regulation has failed is unarguable. There is a case for developing an alternative mechanism to guarantee standards of good practice broadly, but not slavishly, in line with what Lord Justice Leveson set out in his report. Sadly, that case has been sabotaged by the process of cosy deal-making in Downing Street and late-night haggling in the opposition leader’s office. The result is a system that requires that any carrier of “news-related material” hold a de facto official licence. That is ill-judged, unworkable and, ultimately, wrong.

It is no more attractive to be part of that system than it would be to line up with hypocritical and reactionary newspapers that declaim piously their commitment to free speech as cover for demands to be free from accountability. A regulatory framework designed by conservative media would be more self-congratulation than self-regulation and no more legitimate than the one parliament approved in the past few days.

The New Statesman, which has an ever-growing website and digital presence, currently does not see its interests served by regulation designed to suit politicians, nor by a revanche regime cooked up for the comfort of newspaper barons. Until a better plan is put forward we reserve our right to continue publishing “news-related material” in print and online without deference to either of those parties.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God