Peter Preston: Victims of press have ‘unrealistic hopes’ for new regulator

Former Guardian editor Peter Preston believes victims of press abuse have “totally unrealistic hopes” for what a new regulator can achieve.

He has expressed worries over the Royal Charter agreed to in Parliament, fearing it could be the start of a slippery slope.

On the Leveson Inquiry he told Press Gazette: “Did you feel for people who really felt themselves to be victims? Well, of course. There are the Watsons from Scotland. But what are they really arguing for?

“There is not a press regulator in the world that is going to step in and say, ‘your daughter has been killed in a fight… and now the person fighting against is saying that she was an awful person, and terrible things have flown from this, and the press ought not to do that’.

“What you’re basically asking for is a libel law which continues to have libel after death. No regulator [is going to] decide whether victim a or victim b in a fight [is right] – it doesn’t work like that.”

Preston, who works part-time for The Guardian and Observer titles, admitted that the press has been responsible for some “horrid things” but said tighter regulation was not the answer.

He also highlighted the case of Chris Jeffries who was wrongly implicated in the murder of Joanna Yeates due to press coverage.

“I’m totally unclear that in the days where Chris Jeffries had a particularly brutal treatment in the tabloids that any regulator would have stepped in quickly enough – or could have stepped in quickly enough,” Preston said.

“That was a job for the Attorney General. It’s contempt of court – he did step in.”

He added: “I think totally unrealistic hopes are being piled on all of this. Hacking was against the law – is against the law. People are being arrested, people are being charged, people are being sent to prison.

“How will this new charter arrangement deal with that? Well, conceivably, it underscores the fact that hacking and similar invasions of privacy, when they’re against the law, need to be borne in mind very constantly by journalists.

“But I’m jiggered if I can think that it makes an absolutely stupendous difference.”

Asked whether Guardian News and Media would be signing up to the Royal Charter last week, he said he wasn’t sure.

He said: “I should think it is on the signing up side of the equation – but with some questions to ask. I think it will be and ought to be – as will others be – a little circumspect over the internet side of the equation, which seems to be a total bodge.”

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