Responding to her government’s defeats on press reform in the House of Lords, the Prime Minister has fallen into the trap of repeating the propaganda of the corporate newspapers and as a result she has made a claim that is very simply and very plainly wrong.
She told reporters: ‘I think that the impact of this vote would undermine high-quality journalism and a free press. I think it would particularly have a negative impact on local newspapers, which are an important underpinning of our democracy . . .’ (My italics.)
The facts are plain. Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which her government wants to shelve and which the Lords has told her to implement, cannot possibly have a negative impact on local papers – because Parliament took specific measures in 2013 to ensure it would not.
The Culture Secretary, Matt Hancock, made exactly the same mistake earlier, but he at least had the excuse that he had only been in the job 48 hours. What is most shaming for Theresa May is that as Home Secretary five years ago she actually sponsored the Crime and Courts Act as a parliamentary Bill, so she really should know what its implications are.
Her only excuse, and it is a very bad one, is that she has swallowed the lies told to her by her friends in the Murdoch press, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph papers – people who clearly show as much respect for accuracy in their briefings for her as they do in the reporting on their front pages.
They drag the locals and regionals into every debate, principally because they realise that while the reputations of their own organisations are very low, there is still genuine affection and sympathy for local journalism.
So it was that the chief spokesman for the corporate press in the Lords, Lord Black of Brentford, warned his follow peers (col 230) that if Section 40 was introduced ‘it would open the floodgates to hundreds of baseless claims that would put the very existence of many newspapers, particularly the local press, in grave jeopardy.’
As Black must know, this is an impossibility – precisely because exactly that fear was raised in 2012-13 by representatives of the regional and local press during the cross-party negotiations over implementation of the Leveson Report, and a special concession was made to addresss it.
The concession is Schedule 2, Paragraph 7c of the Royal Charter on Press Self-Regulation, which explicitly provides the possibility of an exemption or opt-out for local or regional news publishers. It states:
‘Where it [the Press Recognition Panel] determines the requirement to provide an arbitral process causes serious financial harm to subscribers who publish only on a local or regional basis, the Recognition Panel may allow recognition to continue on the basis that such subscribers may, but need not, participate in the Regulator’s arbitral process.’
In other words, if local and regional papers can show they might suffer financial harm they can be exempted from the requirement to offer low-cost arbitration under Section 40.
So the assertion by the Prime Minister that the Lords amendments urging the impelentation of Section 40 ‘would particularly have a negative impact on local newspapers’ is completely wrong and without foundation, just as Lord Black’s assertions in the House of Lords were wrong and without foundation.
What is most revolting about all this is not that Theresa May listens to people like Black (a former boss of the industry’s now defunct and utterly discredited PCC ‘self-regulator’) and that she is prepared to damage her own and her government’s reputation by parroting what they tell her, it is that the corporate newspapers and their collective body, the News Media Association (NMA), are happy to encourage the Prime Minister to repeat false information.
They know perfectly well that the exemption exists, yet they simply pretend to her and to Matt Hancock, the Culture Secretary, that it does not. The reason is as simple as it is cynical: they have no genuine arguments so they are obliged to confect them, and since their own reputations are in a dreadful state they have little choice but to hide behind the unfortunate but still popular local newspaper industry.