Comment: Newspapers have nothing to fear
The adoption of a royal charter for regulation of the press represents a welcome step in redressing the balance between the public interest and that of the press.
For too many years, press proprietors have claimed that they were acting in the former, when it has often been the latter.
In the 1930s, Stanley Baldwin stated that the press had power without responsibility. What we are now seeing is a very small step indeed begin the development of a regulatory and complaints system to help the press to live up to the standards by which it claims to abide.
It is important to remember that Leveson would not have come about had the press, especially the Murdoch press, lived by the code of the now discredited Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and, before that, the Press Council.
Decades have passed since the press was “drinking in the last chance saloon”. Now, like a recovering alcoholic, the press was pleading for one final opportunity to make self-regulation work
We might now have independent self-regulation, but who doubts that the press will still be influential in determining the new regulatory code, which will probably be very similar to the old PCC code?
So, is their fear of censorship justified? What is forgotten by many in the hope that press power will no longer be an excuse for abuse is the reality that, as Ronald Reagan said, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet”.
Who can doubt that every step in the establishment of this new institution will be the subject of unprecedented press hostility masquerading as scrutiny and accountability?
Who will wish to serve on this regulator with the certainty that any and all aspects of their professional and personal lives could be spread across the tabloids as a way of undermining the legitimacy of the new system of regulation? In any case, will all newspapers sign up to the new system, and what happens if they do not? There may be higher damages in court cases, but note also that the politicians are reduced to pleading with the press not to boycott this new system.
Who has the real power here?
The new regulator will need moral strength and continued public support to become effective in the face of press antagonism. Let us indeed hope that decisions by the new regulator will be reported fairly and without spin and bias, so people can make up their own minds.
Given that the SNP government in Scotland could reject much of the McCluskey report, published last week, and opt into the UK system for now, we need to ask if the new regulator will have representation for and from Scotland. If so, how many members, or a separate committee? Or might there be, under devolution, a separate Scotland-specific regulator but under the auspices of the new UK royal charter? Would a Scottish regulator follow the same route as the English model or would there be room for a distinctively Scottish solution incorporating some, if not all, of the McCluskey Report? And what would be the consequences if the English and Scottish regulatory decisions differed?
The complexity of the decisions yet to be negotiated on rules and regulations leaves a great deal of room for weakening and dilution. The Hacked Off campaign might seem to be the winners in the short term, but talk of any winners and losers is surely premature.
There is, however, one sure-fire way for the press to avoid any threat of censorship, however unlikely and remote that might be.
All they need to do is to uphold standards of truth and accuracy; to report and not to create news, and to treat people with respect when writing about them.
Any regulator – just like any court – knows that the best defence against allegations of defamation is that of journalists telling the truth as best they can on the evidence. Any newspaper has nothing to fear from regulation if this is the case.
• Robert Beveridge is visiting professor at the University of Sassari, Italy. He is a tutor at the Scottish Media Academy and was previously a board member of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer organisation.
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