The latest attempt to regulate the press has ended in a very British farce. After widespread outrage about reporters hacking phones, parliament agreed a new regulatory system, as recommended by Brian Leveson’s inquiry. The state would set up, under royal charter, a recognition panel to audit new regulatory bodies set up by the newspapers. The system would be voluntary. Yet one clause of the legislation (Section 40) – to be brought into effect by ministers once the various bodies were established – imposed a penalty for newspapers that didn’t co-operate: they would be liable to pay both sides’ costs in cases that reached the courts, even if they won.
The recognition panel is in place. So are two regulatory bodies. The first, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, was set up by many of the big national publications (but not the Guardian, the Financial Times, Private Eye or the New Statesman). After two years – and more than 12,000 complaints by the end of 2015 – it has imposed no fines and has never required a correction of equal prominence to an original, inaccurate story. The organisation has not applied for recognition because, its press supporters say, any government-appointed body threatens free expression. Even if it did seek recognition, it probably wouldn’t get it, as it is suspiciously similar to its pre-Leveson predecessor. Its chairman describes it as “better than nothing” – hardly a ringing endorsement.
The second regulator, Impress, endorsed by the National Union of Journalists, involves only a small number of publications, most of them, such as the Brixton Bugle, obscure. It has applied for recognition and has just received it as I write.
With everything in place, you would think that it is time to bring Section 40 into force. The House of Lords agrees. It has added amendments to another bill that would have the effect of doing exactly that. Ministers apparently disagree. They will overturn the Lords amendments in the Commons and continue to delay, perhaps indefinitely.
So we have one regulator that isn’t recognised, another regulator with nothing important to regulate and a government that refuses to bring into force the law designed to make the whole thing work. Newspapers, particularly the Mail, the Sun, the Times and the Telegraph, have successfully argued that Section 40 is, in effect, blackmail because it offers a blank cheque to vexatious litigants.
Yet there is a carrot as well as a stick. Complainants who take their cases to the courts, refusing to go through an approved regulator, would also face paying both sides’ costs. The newspapers don’t mention this. This tells you all you need to know about their intentions. Once we’ve all forgotten phone-hacking and Leveson, they will no doubt carry on as before, invading privacy, telling outright lies and distorting the truth.
Signs of the times
We’ve all seen the signs even if they don’t affect us directly. “Under 25? Please be prepared to show proof of age when buying alcohol.” Presumably the retailers who designed this scheme think that there is a chance that somebody who looks 24 could, in reality, be a 17-year-old. So why are newspapers and Tory MPs so confident that refugees who look 24 – and are likely to have had more harrowing experiences than any young customer in a pub or supermarket – cannot possibly be children?
A very silly man
Ever since Roy Strong came to lunch at the New Statesman during my editorship and asked why the magazine was “so miserable” (it was during the Iraq War and we weren’t exactly celebrating), I have thought him a very silly man. Now, he attains new heights of silliness, objecting to National Trust plans for a cycle and pedestrian trail that would circumnavigate Croome, a Worcestershire park designed by “Capability” Brown. The trust, rather than preserving “heritage”, is becoming “an arm of the leisure industry”, obsessed with “accessibility”, he complains. You would think, from the way that he talks, that it was proposing to admit double-decker buses.
If you wanted to be faithful to Brown’s intentions – which were to project authority and glorify the aristocratic owners of the neo-Palladian mansion at Croome’s centre – you would preserve his landscape for the enjoyment of a tiny elite, excluding almost all of the National Trust’s 4.5 million members. Strong and other defenders of “heritage” should beware. If they succeed in preserving 18th-century landscapes as inert works of art, miserable lefties, in the unlikely event of such people winning power, will build council houses on them.
Left foot in
Not that I am indifferent to heritage. I will do almost anything for it, including dancing the hokey-cokey, which, you may recall, involves putting various parts of your anatomy in, taking them out and shaking them all about. I did this to an R’n’B soundtrack recently at Wilton’s, a rare surviving example of the original music halls, built in the second half of the 19th century. It lies near the river in the heart of what used to be London’s working-class East End.
Narrowly saved from demolition in the early 1970s, Wilton’s has been beautifully restored, with two bars, a majestic main hall and an eclectic mix of soul singers, jazz musicians, historical tours and quirky drama productions. The night we went, the star act was Ida Barr, a fictional music-hall veteran, played by a man in drag. What Roy Strong would make of it, I do not know. As music halls were founded to bring pleasure to working people, however, even he would have no problem with the accessibility.
My tip for dealing with those pesky trick-or-treaters on Hallowe’en: get in some apples. Hand them out when the doorbell rings. Watch expectant faces fall. Settle down in peace for the rest of the evening while the word spreads around the neighbourhood that it’s no use calling at your house.
This article appears in the 25 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage