Press regulation: a return to media normality?

02 Nov 2016  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Press regulation: a return to media normality?

The Culture Secretary consultation suggests the end of Leveson 2 and punitive costs on newspapers. Are we finally seeing a chance to return to media normality under the law? By Raymond Snoddy.

When a politician has a tricky decision to take, one guaranteed to provoke howls of protest whatever path is chosen, it's time for a nice bit of further consultation.

The advantages are so obvious the only surprise is there are not more of them. Why was there not further consultation on the consultation on whether or not to have a judicial inquiry into "the battle of Orgreave"?

Who can reasonably oppose the notion that, as an issue, it is so complex and potentially divisive that further consultation is vital. It covers the lack of willingness to take a decision with a veneer of rationality, of statesmanship, of willingness to listen.

Further consultation has the additional merit of either kicking the can down the road or launching it into the long grass, depending on your particular taste in political cliché.

The only thing we can now say for certain is that the decision on whether there should be a Leveson mark 2 and/or the implementation of punitive cost clauses in Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 can be helpfully delayed until the Spring.

With a closing date of 10 January and several months for further consideration of the further consultation it is not too Machiavellian to envisage an announcement to either do nothing, or the least possible, coming amidst the chaos of the triggering of Article 50 designed to take the UK out of the European Union. Then only the dogged few will notice.

Of course Prime Minister Theresa May could decide by then that the promise to trigger Article 50 by the end of March might itself need further consultation.

It would have been better in theory for Culture Secretary Karen Bradley to simply say that Leveson 2 is no longer necessary and that making newspapers pay for all costs in libel and privacy cases whether they win or lose was never a good idea.

As The Times leader on the subject pointed out, five years after the phone-hacking scandal erupted everyone who has anything to say about press regulation has already said it. The same argument will be rehearsed and few, if any, will have changed their minds.

But such an approach amounts to hopeless idealism.

There were all-Party agreements in Westminster supporting such policies, so therefore, from a political point of view, its best to let people down gently.

Tom Watson, deputy leader of Labour, a party with a very uncertain grasp of concepts of press freedom, knew exactly what was happening. Mrs Bradley was in effect "announcing whether a cover-up should be covered up."

At least MPs voted down a Lords amendment to a surveillance bill which would have brought in Section 40.

Just in case you are more interested in football or Brexit, a few moments on press regulation - at least the form of it that many MPs seem to want - might not go amiss.

The idea that newspapers should in effect be forced to sign up to an implausible statute-recognised regulator such as Impress to avoid penal damages is bad law that might not survive legal challenge.

The measure could kill off already vulnerable local newspapers by making them liable to limitless legal costs, or even worse, reduce what they write to harmless mush to avoid any danger of litigation.

Tensions between editors and police erupted - again - at the Society of Editors conference"

As Sir Alan Moses, chairman of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), warned at the Society of Editors conference in Carlisle: newspapers should be very wary indeed about being "corralled" into a regulator recognised by The Press Recognition Panel under statute.

It is not often that Jacob Rees-Mogg MP wins admiration - other than as a character out of a Trollope political novel.

But the son of the former Times editor William Rees-Mogg certainly impressed Daily Mail sketch-writer Quentin Letts.

Letts noted that the young Rees-Mogg described Max Mosley, the principal funder of Impress, as "a degenerate libertine".

Letts and the Daily Mail will escape punitive damages and costs for libel for reporting the claim because MPs have absolute privilege for what they say on the floor of the House of Commons and newspapers have qualified privilege to report what MP’s have said - which is almost the same thing.

More than 2,500 publications including most of the national dailies have signed up to be regulated by IPSO while 50 so far want to be regulated by Impress, most of them either small free newspapers or blog sites.

The case against yet another Leveson inquiry into the relations between the press and the police is also strong. Lord Justice Leveson has made it clear he has no interest in such a second inquiry.

There have been exhaustive police inquiries following Leveson, not just into hacking but payments to police and other public servants.

The imbalance in outcomes has been striking with journalists largely being cleared at trial and public servants convicted, but that is another argument about whether the names of journalistic sources should ever have been revealed in the first place.

It now looks as if the effects of Leveson have already gone too far with everything from crime and investigative reporting being hindered by police using Leveson as an excuse to withhold information.

Tensions between editors and police erupted - again - at the Society of Editors conference. Alex Marshall, chief executive of the College of Policing, came under fire for producing a list of all the occasions when police officers would have to contact their press office before talking to the press.

It covered just about anything likely to happen to a cop. The list might now be dropped but it is far from clear that police behaviour will change.

One local editor hold how he could not get the name of a mountaineer killed in a climbing accident. The police would not reveal his name because the coroner "owned" such information and the coroner never spoke to the media.

Maybe there should be an inquiry into how Leveson has chilled the essential informal relationships between journalists and politicians, and journalists and representatives of public bodies such as the police, to the detriment of free flows of information in a democratic society.

At least for now further consultation is welcome as a sure and certain sign that the punitive clauses of Section 40 will not be implemented and Leveson 2 will fade over the horizon.

Maybe then there will be a return to media normality within the law and within the IPSO code.

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