Brian Wilson: Why press regulation will not work

We don’t need new rules for journalists – they should face the same laws as everyone else, writes Brian Wilson

Press regulation would not have stopped the Daily Mails attack on Ed Milibands father. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

As A privy councillor myself – it has taken me absolutely ages to find a decent context for that intro – I was surprised to read that the Privy Council is deliberating on how best to regulate the press.

This is one of the rare occasions on which it would have been quite nice to be asked. Alas, the invitation passed me by. I only ever hear from the Privy Council when they want to check my contact details in case the Queen dies and we have to be summoned with haste.

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Anyway, closer inspection reveals that it’s really a bunch of Tory and Lib Dem ministers who have been discussing press regulation, disguised as a sub-committee of the Privy Council, because what they are proposing to introduce is a Royal Charter which apparently requires the nod from the Privy Council rather than parliament.

If our sub-committee had been more inclusive, I would have been happy to offer them my advice – which is, basically, steer clear of regulation. I bow to no man in detesting a great deal of what “sections of the press”, as we so delicately put it, get up to; but the dangers inherent in state-sponsored regulation are far greater than the evils it is likely to address.

Not even the fact that Rupert Murdoch tweeted that regulation would be to “protect toffs” can make me come out in favour of it. One would have thought that this was a debate Murdoch might usefully have kept out of, since it was the vile behaviour of his employees that set the Leveson ball rolling in the first place.

Who doubts that they were “only following orders”? And as I recall, their victims were not “toffs” but the bereaved and the defenceless as well as those whom Murdoch’s loyal lieutenants had decided were fair game because they had the temerity to put themselves in the public eye. For Murdoch to play the “toffs” card at this juncture is pitiful in its mendacity.

But therein lies a big part of the answer to the clamour for regulation. The Murdoch foot soldiers who hacked, bribed and stole were not errant journalists in need of regulation. The scandals that led to Leveson arose because the rogue press operated outside the law and sometimes in collaboration with the police. Nothing to do with regulation.

There should be no separate laws for the press as distinct from the rest of society. Apply the law of the land to journalists, like anyone else, and in most cases there would be no need for the amorphous concept of regulation, which would also affect the vast majority of journalists and publications who work within the law.

Then we have the case of the Daily Mail and Ed Miliband which, very oddly, is now being held up as an example of why press regulation is needed. I fail to see any causal connection. The Daily Mail has been spreading poison for the past century and is not going to stop now. But that is what is called freedom of speech.

The refreshing point is that the stand-off between the Mail and Miliband has actually led to awareness being raised about the nature of the beast. Good has come of it. Far more people now know of the Daily Mail as the paper that supported the Nazis until embarrassingly late in the day and has never entirely mended its ways. We know a bit more about the left-wing intellectual as a brave war hero and also about the tawdry history that underpins the Daily Mail’s warped view of patriotism.

I cannot think of any conceivable piece of regulation that could stop the Daily Mail publishing a demented attack on the dead father of a Labour Party leader in order to get at his son. That is what it does. To the Rothermere press, the Zinoviev Letter and “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” are not historical embarrassments but landmarks in the long march towards its distinctive identity.

The problem is not that they can publish whatever suits their prejudices but that there is such a substantial audience for the product. And you can’t regulate that away. It can be argued there is a degree of cause and effect, but that is scarcely a justification for regulation – “You can’t publish that nonsense because people might believe it.” And anyway, not all readers of the Daily Mail buy it for its politics or even vote for them.

I watched Maria Miller make her statement yesterday in which she rejected the press’s plea for self-regulation. On that, she and her Privy Council sub-committee are surely right. Self-regulation is the longest-running joke in newspapers. I was in the House of Commons when David Mellor warned editors that they were “drinking in the last chance saloon” and set up the Press Complaints Commission, which turned out to be just as useless as its predecessor.

Self-regulation has traditionally acted as a fig leaf for the worst excesses of the British press. The PCC and its predecessor, the Press Council, did nothing to stop them but at the same time maintained the pretence of safeguards, intervening occasionally to tut-tut about invasions of royal privacy or some other peripheral matter. We are well rid of the pretence of self-regulation.

But that does not mean a statutory system is the answer either. When I see the amount of political interference there is with broadcasters, who are subject to regulation, I have no wish to see the same pressures extended to editors. Spin-doctors and other manipulators would be armed with the unspoken threat of regulatory retribution. Yet editors must always be able to tell politicians and their lackeys to clear off and mind their own business. That is a vital democratic safeguard.

Of course, in the first flush of opportunism, we were to have our very own Scottish Press Regulator, appointed by the Scottish Government. We seem to have heard less of that wheeze lately, and hopefully it has gone away.

When it takes seven months to find out who paid for the First Minister’s tartan trews because of Freedom of Information requests being refused by the Scottish Government, the last thing we need is another quango to “regulate” the flow of information. If it was not for press freedom and persistence, how would we ever have heard of Trewsgate – and how will we in the future?

The Scotsman Conferences is hosting a series of events capturing the many facets of the Scottish independence debate. 3 December sees a formidable line up of expert speakers tackle “The Independence White Paper: A Business Plan for Scotland?” For more details on this and other great events please visit