The Media Secretary, Karen Bradley, told the Commons Media Select Committee this week that she will announce the long-overdue outcome of her consultation on Section 40 and Leveson Part Two ‘shortly’ – hinting it would be in the next few weeks.
In making this announcement she repeated four significant errors (we should call them that for the sake of politeness) that she uttered nearly a year ago when she needed to justify a consultation clearly designed to appease the corporate press. Add to that another ‘error’ which was petty but hardly innocent and you have five.
She is forced to rely on nonsense to get around an awkward problem: the consultation seeks to overturn measures that were laboriously agreed and passed just four years ago by all parties in Parliament. Even more awkward: she voted in favour of those measures in 2013 and Theresa May was one of the formal proposers.
The overarching error is this, as expressed this week:
‘We have to be mindful of the different environment that the press operates in today.’
She needs us to think that there have been so many changes since 2013 that were not foreseen by government, Parliament or the Leveson Inquiry that she, as the responsible minister, has been obliged to step in and seek the best way to put things right.
It’s just not true, as we see when we look at the elements of this supposedly ‘different environment’.
‘When the Leveson Inquiry reported and when Parliament legislated [in 2012-13] there was an assumption that the press would be regulated by regulators that applied for recognition under the Press Recognition Panel. That did not happen.’
There was – absolutely categorically – no such assumption. On the contrary, in March 2013 there was open and frank public acknowledgement that the big corporate newspapers were refusing to be regulated in this way. (Which is precisely why Section 40 was seen to be necessary.)
The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, his Media Secretary, Maria Miller, and his Minister for Government Policy, Oliver Letwin, all spoke about this publicly – the former in the Commons and the others before the same Select Committee. And no one who was listening at the time, including both Karen Bradley and Theresa May, could have been surprised by what they said, because the Times, the Telegraph, the Mail and the Sun were all blaring out their opposition as loud as they could.
So when Bradley says that in 2013 ‘there was an assumption’ that everything would simply fall into place, she is talking nonsense of the kind that can be easily disproved.
Her next error, again attempting to support the notion of ‘a different environment’, involved online news. She told the Select Committee: ‘When the Leveson Inquiry reported we simply didn’t see the same volume of online news sources which were not regulated by Ofcom or the Press Recognition Panel or anybody else.’ She also made reference to the ‘many online organisations that weren’t even considered’ in 2013.
It is obviously a literal truth that the number of online news sources has increased since 2013, but the implication of her observation, and the assertion that this matter was not considered in 2013, are equally obviously false.
Bradley is implying that MPs voting in 2013 had no idea that the number of online news sources would increase by 2017. That is nonsense. Of course they did. She is also stating that increases in news publishing online ‘weren’t even considered’ by the Leveson Inquiry, which is demonstrably incorrect. (A couple of clues here: the judge heard evidence on online developments from at least 67 witnesses, including representatives of Google and Facebook, and the words ‘internet’, ‘online’ and ‘website’ are mentioned nearly 600 times in the his report.)*
The emptiness of this particular ‘error’ is fully exposed when you consider this: if Bradley sincerely believed that her consultation was made necessary by the growth of online news then the consultation itself would address the question of what government action was required. It doesn’t. The word ‘internet’ does not appear even once in her consultation document, and the world ‘online’ is only used when guiding people on how to make submissions.
Next we come to Bradley’s efforts to justify her consultation by referring to the plight of local newspapers and asserting that she is concerned about the impact of Section 40 on their viability.
First, this can not be considered part of ‘a changed environment’ since 2013. Local newspapers were well known to be in grave difficulties at that time and no case can be made that Sir Brian Leveson or the Cameron government or Members of Parliament such as Bradley herself acted in ignorance of that. So alert was Parliament to their problems, indeed, that a special opt-out was arranged for local papers concerned about the potential burden of responding to any increase in claims arising from the introduction of cheap arbitration under the Royal Charter.
Bradley cited submissions by local newspaper editors, but MPs on the Select Committee were quick to remind her that those editors formed part of a nationally coordinated propaganda campaign against Section 40 that wholly misrepresented the facts.
The truth is that there can be no relationship between the severe problems faced by local newspapers and the Royal Charter or Section 40, except this: local papers would benefit from joining recognised, Leveson-standard regulation through protection from legal risks and through the enhancement of their journalistic freedoms.
The final ‘error’ from Karen Bradley was the most crass. So determined was she to make her own 2013 vote in favour of Section 40 look like ancient history that she tried to give the Select Committee the impression it happened six years ago. It would be nice to let this go as a slip of the tongue, but it was so much in keeping with the rest of her comments she hardly deserves that latitude.
When Bradley announces her response to the consultation she would be unwise to rely on this sequence of ‘errors’. These are not matters of opinion and they will not become true by virtue of repetition. The truth is well documented; indeed she can find the evidence, with copious references, set out fully in some of the submissions to the consultation.
Bradley also needs to think again about a point she made several times in her evidence to the Select Committee: her claim that she was required to act because ‘more than 90 per cent’ of the press refuses to accept Leveson-style regulation.
Only someone who has spent far too long listening to the arguments of the corporate newspapers could claim to see the world in this way.
As explained above, it was known in 2013 that these papers would resist. And that was precisely why Section 40 was passed so overwhelmingly – to create both (rather generous) carrots to encourage them to do the right thing and (rather modest) sticks to push them in that direction.
Bear in mind, too, that these are the very same companies that the Leveson Report found guilty of ‘wreaking havoc in the lives of innocent people’.
What Karen Bradley is saying is that she is considering abandoning legislation designed to protect citizens from abuse, before it has even been tested, on the grounds that the abusers object. That is scandalous. What the minister should be doing, indeed what the government should have done at least two years ago, is to put Section 40 to work as Parliament intended.
* This has been corrected. The article previously stated, incorrectly, that ‘internet’ was used 1,200 times.