Now that the political and media classes have had time to digest Lord Leveson’s recommendations on press reform, the fight over what to do has begun. On the one hand, Cameron is desperately trying to present a new form of independent regulation that will make everyone happy and on the other his own Deputy, Nick Clegg, and the opposition are effectively calling for a Press Law, the first of its kind in Britain for hundreds of years.
Labour’s Press Reform Bill would effectively be an enforcement of Leveson’s proposals. They want the appointment of a Lord Chief Justice to oversee the press regulatory body every three years to check it is still ‘Leveson compliant’.
This has come in for predictably huge amount of criticism with the Leader in the Times yesterday arguing these proposals would give Parliament the power to amend press controls in future. It was rather dismissive of the first line of the bill which aimed to guarantee press freedom:
“Whether or not this is well meant is beside the point. Stating that public officials “must have regard to” the freedom and integrity of the press is hardly a ringing declaration or a proper guarantee of press independence. It is not hard to see it, practically, becoming an impediment as it used to qualify and limit freedom.
“Britain does not have a First Amendment right to press freedom as established by the Constitution of the United States. It is not a good idea to attempt to jot one down on the back of an envelope.”
Similarly in a rather sniping piece about the dominance of left wing voices on Twitter for the Spectator, Toby Young argued that the group lobbying for reform, Hacked Off, used the social media platform to effectively bully people into supporting the proposals by signing the petition.
However, no matter how much we in the industry argue with each other about our future there is a public clamour for reform. So far, 146,202 people (as of the morning of 12/12/12) have signed the petition and according to Hacked Off, a survey conducted by YouGov and the Carnegie Trust suggesting 75 per cent of the population support regulation.
Ideological purity aside, the Labour party is in the game of being in opposition to a currently very unpopular government; you have to promise the people what they want, regardless of how realistic or sensible it is.
However, I am always reluctant to go down any legalist route to fix what is in effect a cultural problem.
Hacking phones has been illegal since 2000. Chasing Sienna Miller down a dark alleyway is either illegal or it should be. The unpaid work that Michelle Stanistreet condemned as creating the instability in the industry is illegal. It is not law that is ultimately the problem; its the enforcement and respect of it.
The example of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who killed herself after being victim of an Australian radio show’s prank phone call and the ongoing Savile crisis at the BBC shows even in the much more toughly regulated broadcast industry there is still a problem with standards.
The press does not need its bad behaviour regulated; it needs to stop being so badly behaved. We do need to reform the Press Complaints Commission to give it a bit of teeth but adding statute into the mixture is pointless if attitudes remain the same.
The issue affecting the press are not that dissimilar to the problems facing the political sector, the Met and nearly every other authoritative institution the public have lost faith in.
You can’t legislate away a cultural problem. Even with a press regulated by either the judiciary or parliament, these proposals are just a bandage for a bullet wound. To paraphrase a famous New Labour era slogan; the press reform bill is only tough on crime, not on the causes of crime. We don’t need external legal regulation for what is an internal cultural crisis.
–Image courtesy of the Guardian