In all the recent parliamentary debates about Leveson part 2 and the Leveson regulation reforms, the corporate press was in agreement on one thing: what we faced was ‘state control’ of the press. If Parliament passed the proposed measures, we were repeatedly told, politicians would be able to block journalists from investigating them while state-approved regulators could gag unwelcome opinions.
This state control, they explained, might not be obvious or even explicit, but there could be no doubt that the proposed measures concealed new levers of power that would enable government to call time on 300 years of press freedom. A principle was at stake; this was the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.
But consider this remarkable fact. Last-minute amendments tabled by the government in a desperate effort to block the Leveson reforms, and then narrowly approved by the House of Commons, give the state powers over the press that the Leveson reforms would never have permitted.
It is a genuine case of the medicine being worse than the disease and yet there has been not a whimper of protest from the corporate papers.
One day they were all terrified of ‘state control’, even though in the Leveson context the prospect was entirely imaginary, and the very next day they were happy to overlook ‘state control’ in the very real form of new powers granted by Parliament to the Culture Secretary, Matt Hancock. The Sun, displaying its customary grasp on reality, gushed: ‘We can’t thank Mr Hancock enough.’
Let’s look briefly at what happened, and its implications.
First, we should be clear that the Leveson Inquiry recommendations, and the Royal Charter which implemented them, rigorously excluded the state, the government, Parliament and indeed working politicians of any kind from involvement in press regulation, or its oversight.
Regulators could be set up by publishers but were required to be wholly independent bodies, with no politicians in sight. And the body set up to test whether they were fit for purpose, the Press Recognition Panel (PRP), though a public body, is by design considerably more independent of the state even than the body which appoints our judges. The most powerful and the most aggressive government minister could have no influence of any kind over the PRP’s appointments, its constitution or its workings.
Even in their desperation to denigrate this scheme, the corporate papers could not identify a single element of real state control. Pushed to explain their supposed fears, the best they could offer was that, since this was what Parliament voted for in 2013, that meant it was state-approved – just a short, slippery step from state control.
In the desperate hours before the recent vote on Leveson 2, however, Matt Hancock slipped out amendment 62BC, and with the help of the Democratic Unionist Party it was approved with barely a word of debate.
This measure identifies a need for external assessment of alternative dispute resolution procedures offered by press regulators – that is to say, there should be checks on the quality of arbitration services offered to the public in cases involving alleged libel or breach of privacy or data rights by news publishers.
This, in fact, is something already recognised in the 2013 Royal Charter that implemented the Leveson recommendations. And Leveson and the Charter were clear, as were all of the political parties back then: the last person who should be given that job was a government minister. Because that would amount to ‘state approval’ – just that short, slippery step away from ‘state control’.
So, to whom did the Culture Secretary’s amendment 62BC allocate that responsibility? To whom has the House of Commons now assigned it by a narrow majority? The Culture Secretary himself.
Yes, Matt Hancock, party politician and government minister, has had himself appointed the judge and jury of press arbitration – the state approver, if you like. He, as Culture Secretary, will decide what is good enough and what is not, and with no objective criteria against which to pronounce judgement.
Forget that we have in the Press Recognition Panel a body already charged with that task, that is painstakingly independent of politicians in its design and appointments; and that the criteria for assessing arbitration systems have been set down in line with the careful recommendations of the Leveson Report; in a couple of hours last week the minister had himself given the job ex officio, and the freedom to do it in whatever fashion he chooses.
So it was that the treatment turned out to be far worse than the disease. The ‘threat to press freedom’ that the corporate papers had been so hysterical about was an illusion. But the ‘victory’ that set them rejoicing so boisterously in fact delivered a new threat to press freedom.
How can this be a threat? After all, these papers know Hancock will approve whatever arbitration scheme IPSO puts forward, no matter how half-baked, so they will get what they want. But Hancock won’t always be Culture Secretary, just as the Conservatives won’t always be in government.
How will they feel when a new Culture Secretary arrives, who dislikes their way of doing things and decides to use whatever powers he or she might have to make life difficult for them? Thanks to amendment 62BC a ministerial power will be available to pull the plug on IPSO’s arbitration system, and so disrupt press regulation.
That’s ‘state control’, or at the very least it is the thin end of that wedge. It’s a matter of principle too.