Politicians v newspapers
Hold the presses
The battle over newspaper regulation rolls into the long grass
“IT IS not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” That (quoting Winston Churchill) is one MP's verdict on Britain's battle over newspaper standards. His judgment, if grandiloquent, is accurate. The clash between politicians and newspapers, which began with the revelation in 2011 of widespread phone-hacking by a tabloid, appears to have reached a conclusion. On October 30th the government approved a new regulatory system to discipline Fleet Streetmisbehaviour. But the hostilities have merely been postponed.
The new system is the product of months of debate and compromise. Reacting to the phone-hacking scandal, the government commissioned a judge to investigate press standards. After a tortuous, year-long inquiry, Lord Justice Levesonrecommended a tough new regulator backed by legislation.
In March the three main political parties responded by proposing a royal charter—an ancient device seen as less offensive to a free press than statute would be. The charter provides for a regulator as well as a “recognition panel”, free from press or political control, to police its independence. The regulator could impose fines of up to ￡1m ($1.6m) on newspapers and insist on prominent corrections. The charter also exposes newspapers that refuse to join the regulatory regime to punitive damages if cases are brought against them.
The large newspaper groups are having none of it. They claim the royal charter amounts to government meddling. On October 30th judges struck down their bid to delay its introduction. Hours later the royal charter received the queen's assent. Politicians declared their job complete.
Ministers hope that editors and owners will sign up to the new system in order to avoid being hit with punitive damages. Some MPs think an ongoing news story will help push them into line. The trial of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, two former editors charged with authorising illegal reporting methods, began on October 28th. On October 30th a jury was told that three former journalists had pleaded guilty to charges of phone-hacking.
That is wishful thinking. Claire Enders, a media analyst, says there is “zero” chance of the big newspapers accepting the new regime. The largest groups have launched another legal challenge to it. They have also created an alternative system, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). This will not comply with the royal charter—not least as it will have fewer powers and will not be completely independent of the press—but the businesses behind it have deep enough pockets to pay eye-watering damages, should it come to that. They will settle with victims of abuse more readily than before, reckons Ms Enders, who also doubts that the smaller newspaper outfits will sign up to the royal charter system.
The politicians' charter will find few or no takers, then—and will eventually crumple. That will happen slowly. The recognition panel, which will monitor progress, will not report on the system's success or failure until shortly before, or even after, the 2015 election. So there will be months of delay before another showdown between the press and MPs.
That suits many people just fine. Mr Cameron, wary of poisoning relations with the press and of Tory colleagues fiercely opposed to regulation, is happy to kick the matter into the long grass. Those keenest on regulation—the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and Hacked Off, a group representing press victims—want to give the charter time to work. Neither Labour nor the Lib Dems plan to question its success until the recognition panel has reported. The tabloid owners and editors are the happiest of all to play for time: the longer the politicians' system is delayed, the more time IPSO has to win acceptance. Legal challenges might delay the process further.
Eventually, probably after the next election, the failure of the royal charter will force politicians back to the drawing board. Most in Labour and the Lib Dems, along with a minority of Tories, might then look to statutory regulation of the press—a prospect even less acceptable to the newspapers than the royal charter. The battle has been postponed. It will be even more vicious when it rejoins.