Weeks after the government thought it had derailed the Leveson process without a parliamentary vote, MPs have a chance to put it back on track.
Next Wednesday, 9 May, the House of Commons will vote on a series of amendments that aim – in defiance of the government’s wishes – to initiate Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry and to add teeth for the first time to Leveson’s reforms of press regulation.
The government does not have a majority in the Commons and no one, including ministers, can be sure which way these votes will go. It is on a knife edge.
So if you want change, this is a moment to let your MP know how you feel.
The amendments were tabled last night, and can be seen here. Especially striking is one tabled by Ed Miliband (Labour), Ken Clarke (Conservative), Brendan O’Hara (SNP), Christine Jardine (Liberal Democrat), Liz Saville Roberts (Plaid Cymru) and Caroline Lucas (Green), which would require the government to launch a public inquiry very closely resembling Leveson 2 within three months.
A strong indicator of how close the votes might be is the panic in the corporate press, whose tame ‘regulator’, IPSO, is suddenly promising to introduce something the whole industry has spent years dismissing as unfair, irrational and impossible.
IPSO says it now wants compulsory arbitration for national newspapers where people claim their legal rights have been breached, but we would be mad to accept this at face value. It is a promise, on paper, of something totally unknown and untested, it may well not be compatible with IPSO’s own rules, and it comes at the eleventh hour from a body with a long record of failing to deliver on its promises.
For example, IPSO’s vaunted powers of investigation (incredibly) remain completely unused; IPSO has never imposed so much as a £100 fine on an erring paper, let alone the £1 million fines it promised; IPSO has never required a national paper to correct a front-page error on its front page; and IPSO’s handling of complaints continues to put the interests of the press before those of the public.
Alongside dodgy promises from the industry, we can now expect a torrent of hysterical press propaganda to the effect that if these measures are approved freedom of expression in this country will be at an end and we will overnight become Stalin’s Russia and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe rolled into one. Local newspapers, they will insist, will be bankrupted, the rich will be able to gag all reporting about them, no one will ever be able to report again on what politicians do and all front-page headlines will be dictated by Downing Street.
This is total humbug. The second part of the Leveson inquiry is designed to find out how criminality became so widespread in the British national press, why this corporate governance failure happened and (if appropriate) who was responsible. Then it should say what lessons can be learned.
This is the kind of thing that happens in free societies. When vested interests are able to prevent proper public scrutiny of their own wrongdoing, that is what happens in Mugabe-style dictatorships and corrupt societies.
At a time when polls tell us, again and again, that a very large proportion of the population does not trust national newspaper journalists to tell the truth, it is obvious that there are problems of governance. At the same time the conduct of the managers (many of whom were in charge at the height of the known criminality) leaves no doubt that they don’t want any change at all. We need Leveson 2 to clear the air.
As for the rest, far from gagging reporters, Section 40 specifically offers newspapers protection from bullying by the wealthy and powerful. Also built into the Leveson structure are strong measures to ensure no politician can have any influence of any kind over what goes into the press (and their online outlets). Local papers and small news publishers with financial problems are explicitly exempted from any effects of Section 40.
The real danger
The real danger now is that if MPs fail to back these measures the corporate papers will no longer feel any pressure to behave ethically. Parliament and MPs will be off their backs and the public will have no hope of change. IPSO, weak as it is already, will then become even weaker, and ordinary people will have no regulatory remedy for the abuses inflicted upon them.
Anybody concerned about the levels of inaccuracy in UK news publishing, about the levels of unfairness in coverage of minorities such as Muslims and trans people, and about the shocking record of ineffectiveness of press self-regulation, should support these measures. They are good for journalism, good for society and good for freedom.