The Daily Telegraph has urged Prime Minister David Cameron to resist statutory regulation of the press in an editorial which makes clear it beleves that an end to self-regulation is looking increasingly likely.
The Telegraph’s executive director Lord Black drew up plans for a reformed Press Complaints Commission which would still be funded and run by the journalism industry. But Saturday’s editorial makes clear that the Telegraph is concerned Lord Justice Leveson will disregard this plan and instead recommend a new independent regulator is set up by the Government.
There is a real danger that, because some newspapers allegedly behaved in a criminal manner, efforts will be made to reduce the whole press to an emasculated cipher of high-minded opinion.
Lord Justice Leveson has signalled that he believes the reformed regulatory body needs to be underpinned by statute, and it is apparent that this view is gaining currency in political circles.
Earlier this week, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, indicated that he would support “proportionate” state regulation of the press; and Labour leaders have also backed the idea.
Since the Prime Minister is compromised by his personal connections to News International, it is hard to see how he will be able to resist imposing a statutory system if one is recommended in the Leveson report. It is not at all clear that he will want to.
The Telegraph notes that Leveson has said that he does not want his report “consigned to the same dusty Whitehall shelf as have been past inquiries into the industry”, but it says: “it would be worse were he to be responsible for the first quasi-state regulation of the press in 300 years”.
Warning about the dangers of independent statutory regulation, rather than a reformed system of self regulation, the Telegraph says:
Once a regulatory measure, however well intentioned, is on the Statute Book, MPs will seek to define the public interest in law, and governments will be tempted to use the legislation to choke off dissent. Statutory bodies, once created, tend to grow and seek additional powers – they become bureaucracies. And it is no coincidence that countries with the highest levels of corruption have the most tightly regulated media.
Britain can boast one of the least venal political systems in the world precisely because its press is not beholden to the state in any way, either through statute or, equally as bad, through subsidy. Those who regard statutory regulation as an acceptable quid pro quo for state financial help do not have the interests of a free press at heart. This includes pressure groups that talk blithely of public subventions for “high-quality” journalism, but that are in reality attempting to constrain the influence and reach of Right-of-centre and tabloid newspapers that have traditionally opposed Labour.
The Telegraph fears that stories like The Sun’s scoop about Andrew Mitchell calling a police officer a pleb would not be encouraged in a state-regulated press:
It should be noted that the most illuminating story of the conference season so far came not from a broadsheet investigation, nor from a TV interview, but from the disclosure in the Sun of Andrew Mitchell’s foul-mouthed rant at police officers guarding the gates of Downing Street. We are sleepwalking into a world in which such ostensibly demotic stories – which actually reveal deeper truths and spark useful national debates – will be officially frowned upon. The growing clamour for press regulation backed by statute threatens a priceless British freedom. A Conservative prime minister should have no part of it.