A sub-committee of a pre-Norman institution will discuss a medieval legal instrument on Wednesday, in the hope of using it to regulate a modern newspaper industry. Following phone hacking, bribing public officials, general muck-spreading and the Leveson inquiry, a small group of privy councillors, mainly cabinet members, are to conclude the debate around the national newspaper’s own proposal for regulation.
The privy council is the Norman descendant of the Anglo-Saxon Witanagemont, literally “meeting of wise men”. Our modern cabinet grew out of this privy council, but the ancient institution remains. Its primary role is to advise the serving monarch and act as a court for dependencies, dominions and colonies.
Today it consists of 600 or so serving or retired politicians, clergy and judges. It represents another example of the UK’s uncodified, quasi-democratic constitution where the principles of elections, separation of branches of government, or church from state, commonplace in other democracies, is not the case here.
Royal charters are formal documents, “letters patent”, issued by the monarch granting a right or power to an individual or organisation. The Bank of England, the BBC, many professional organisations, universities and charities operate under a royal charter. It was this instrument rather than parliamentary oversight that was felt to be most appropriate for regulating the press.
Parliament has already approved a royal charter accepted by all three major parties, but in May agreed to consider an alternative proposal put forward by the newspapers themselves. This was to allow a “robust” examination of the self-policing model backed by some leading UK newspaper groups.
The main point of difference is that the newspaper charter still retains the principle of self-regulation with regulators approved by the newspapers whereas the parliament charter doesn’t. While the newspapers’ proposal would see some of the toughest regulation of the press in a democracy globally, it is likely to be rejected by the privy council as it still has the current system of self-regulation.
The newspaper version also removes from parliament its power to block or approve future changes and takes away the ban on former editors on sitting on the panel which would approve the regulator.
The sub-committee has not met once since the parliament’s charter was approved, in the time supposed to allow for consideration of the newspapers’ proposal. This is worrying and leaves any decision open to judicial review. One Whitehall lawyer told the Independent that the lack of any meeting “doesn’t look too smart, especially when it’s a matter affecting the press directly. Public perception is important here, and this has been ignored. A judicial review of the way this has been handled is now inevitable.”
On Monday evening, the BBC’s Newsnight reported that a decision had been made not to accept the newspaper proposal.
A free press or narrow press
A free press is vital to the workings of a democracy. National newspapers have relentlessly and fearlessly held governments and politicians to account, brought to our breakfast tables events from far flung places and delivered scoop after scoop on organisations and individuals, including themselves, from Conrad Black’s fall from grace to the closure of the News of the World. Even in the digital age, 22 million adults (43%) read the national newspapers on a daily basis. This rises to 42 million (81%) over a month. The fourth estate remains powerful.
Where the industry has gone wrong is rank hypocrisy (moralising while publishing soft porn), law breaking (phone hacking and bribing), interesting and concentrated ownership (non-domiciles), obsessing over celebrity trivia (ad nauseam), spreading misinformation about the poor (scroungers), young (out of control), foreigners (more scroungers or terrorists) and science (denial and panic) and then only recruiting its writers from a narrow strata of society.
Newspapers have long complained about their commercial decline, but this is hardly surprising when the expressed opinions of the newspapers themselves and the people who write them are so unrepresentative of the vast majority of the backgrounds and views of British people. Conflating opinion with news means they do not have their readers’ confidence, especially for the tabloid press, where many of those opinions are at odds with how ordinary British people see the world.
In 2006, the Sutton Trust profiled the background of leading professions. One of these was journalists. Despite only 7% of the population attending independent schools, of the top 100 journalists, 54% were independently educated, up from 49% in 1986. Forty-five per cent of the leading journalists in 2006 (or 56% of those who went to university) attended Oxbridge.
This is not to criticise the independent sector or our country’s leading universities, which are exceptional by international standards. But if those setting the news agenda have such narrow educational background, their worldview will not resonate with their readership.
A plague on both their houses
We fear press regulation dreamt up by politicians, as there is no guarantee that future parliaments will not act against the common good and silence critics as they are doing with the gagging bill, and tried to over their own expenses scandal. We equally fear a narrow press who only represent the views of a segment of the population and gravitate to one political, social and economic ideology – politically and socially conservative while economically liberal.
Private Eye’s Ian Hislop has eloquently argued that phone hacking, paying public officials and contempt of court contravene existing laws. Journalists and executives from News Corp have had their collars felt without the need of a royal charter. The issue is less that we have insufficient laws, but that they are not enforced. This is often out of fear of an over mighty and, at times, vindictive press.
Enforcing the laws we have while looking at the ownership of our national newspapers might be a better way of ensuring a more responsible but no less robust press. One man owning 34% of the national newspaper market, supported by other media interests, is unhealthy. The Daily Mail’s national and regional newspaper interests give it an equally powerful platform. Twenty-five per cent gives any player an unhealthy influence over the market. Putting in place domestic ownership laws and forcing a break up of groups that are too large would mean more competition and more outlets for a plurality of opinions to be disseminated.
Which finally leaves redress. Rich and powerful people can take on the press, as Miliband did with the Mail. Many innocent people have had their lives turned upside down by the newspapers and there is little right to reply. The press has proven itself incapable of addressing this fundamental issue in the character and ethics of the press.
The low cost mechanisms provided in the royal charter allow for ordinary people to have their case heard independently, then prominent apologies published and compensation paid if a newspaper is found at fault. This makes sense at first glance but may lead to vexatious claims by groups and individuals where the press bears the cost of any investigation however frivolous. This may stifle legitimate investigations as much as it drives out the illegitimate ones.
Anyone weighing the merits of either side will need the wisdom of Solomon to come up with the right decision and balance between press freedom and responsibility. A brief meeting one Wednesday afternoon with a foregone conclusion is not commensurate with the issue at hand.