Weekends are supposed to be for calm reflection of the week that has passed and some rest before the challenges of the week to come. Not this last weekend where dozens of articles appeared in our newspapers raging against the ‘licensing’ of the press in the light of the proposed Parliamentary Royal Charter on press self-regulation, marking the next stage in a peculiar struggle for liberty that is led by some of the most privileged voices in the country.
Given the scale of phone hacking and the extent of collusion between top levels of the press and politicians that was revealed during the Leveson Inquiry, a Royal Charter is hardly the most desirable instrument with which to make real change. It lacks transparency and any semblance of public participation; it fails to challenge the concentrated ownership of the UK press; and it is unlikely either to provide justice for all those unjustifiably vilified by newspapers or to secure a more diverse and independent press. But then a Royal Charter was not what the victims and their representatives were initially pressing for. Rather they have been forced into a compromise by a militant campaign coordinated by sections of the press—notably the Mail, Telegraph and News UK groups— desperate to maintain the status quo with regards to self-regulation.
In this context, would we be better off with or without a series of small reforms that allow for the possibility of a proper complaints process and a measure of independent oversight of the new self-regulatory body? In my mind, the proposed Charter that is going to the Privy Council on 30 October will improve prospects for redress and ethical reporting, albeit marginally, without turning newspapers into government organs and without transforming journalists into stenographers of power. The issue, actually, is not that the Charter is too radical but that it is too modest to affect a meaningful change in the culture of the press, particularly as it leaves unchanged the power of the largest press groups.
Some of the claims made on the weekend, therefore, are simply risible. Fraser Nelson in the Mail on Sunday insisted that the ‘Politicians’ Charter’ will ‘bury three centuries of press freedom’. The article fails to provide a single example of how an oversight body of a self-regulator with no remit whatsoever to impose restraints on journalists will be able, single-handedly, to tame what is regularly described as a ‘raucous’ press. But to what extent has Nelson’s beloved ‘press freedom’ involved a genuine independence from the state in any case? Has this commitment to liberty stopped the press from obeying state-sponsored curbs on free speech including the Official Secrets Act, terrorism legislation and D Notices? Has it stopped the press from accepting the extra profits generated by a state supervised exemption of VAT worth some £600 million a year? Has it stopped them from ganging up in recent weeks against the Guardian’s determination to expose state-run surveillance systems that undermine all our civil liberties? Clearly not for the Sun which last week accused the Guardian of ‘treason’ and of ‘helping terrorists’ in publishing the Edward Snowden revelations about the National Security Agency.
Claire Fox in the Independent rails against the ‘chilling effect’ of Leveson’s proposals such that the press is now full of polite and risk-adverse coverage. Presumably this does not include the Mail’s witch hunt against Ralph Miliband nor indeed the distinctly heated attacks on Leveson and press reformers that have so preoccupied columnists and leader writers in recent months. For Fox, however, independence from the state is an absolute and she calls as evidence figures including John Milton, Karl Marx and JS Mill, all of whom were committed supporters of press freedom. Fox, however, totally ignores the changed historical circumstances in that the most restrictive influence on journalists today is not the pre-publication censorship of previous eras so much as the commercial consideration to secure exclusives and increase circulation whatever the ethical consequences. And as I have already pointed out, where journalists do face overt state intervention—often concerning security-related issues—proprietors and editors are rather less keen to prioritise press freedom over the ‘national interest’.
Fraser Nelson is right on one point however: the Charter is ‘apparently voluntary’. What a monstrous and cunning piece of totalitarian legislation this must be that its drafters have made it voluntary. Kim Jong-un, Joseph Stalin and Robert Mugabe (figures regularly invoked by those who oppose any sort of regulation) must be seriously jealous that they failed to craft legislation that so terrorised people and their liberties that it was made optional. It is true that those groups who do not sign up to the proposed new regulatory body may face less protection from the Courts and higher fines but are these not the same million-pound fines that were contained in the allegedly Leveson-compliant charter drawn up by the industry itself?
Nowhere in all this does the press show any signs of waking up to the simple fact that they brought this on themselves. You cannot blame the Hillsborough victims or the Dowlers or the McCanns for the public debate that is now taking place about press ethics and behaviour. Indeed, readers of all newspapers are acutely aware of this which is why, in poll after poll, they continue to demonstrate their support for press reforms and their continuing distrust of both press barons as well as politicians.
Proof that we need a series of measures to tackle press power and to stimulate genuine press freedom lies precisely with the self-serving and ahistorical arguments that are at the heart of the onslaught against the Parliamentary charter that continues to be carried out by top levels of the press. But then this isn’t really a campaign against a rather arcane legislative institution that meets in secret and has the monarch at its head. Instead it is a desperate battle fought using a specious commitment to an empty notion of press freedom by vested interests in the press to maintain their power and influence.
Des Freedman is the current chair of the Media Reform Coalition.
Originally published on Open Democracy.