Threat to press freedom fades away

To the relief of editors, MPs seem to have accepted self-regulation.

There was a moment at Monday’s press conference when Gerald Kaufman’s committee showed it might have teeth and that they might take a big bite into press freedom.

That was when Labour member Derek Wyatt suggested, out of the blue, that newspapers which breached the PCC Code of Practice should be punished by not being allowed to publish the following day.

But when first George Pascoe Watson, deputy political editor of The Sun, and then Stuart Kuttner, managing editor of the News of the World, challenged him, Wyatt swiftly backtracked. And Kaufman himself made clear the sanction did not have the committee’s backing.

The episode somehow summed up the report. The threat to press freedom that had been feared simply failed to materialise. Instead of a savage beast, the report was more like a tamed cat, one moreover that had just been well fed.

True, the MPs called for a privacy law. But they have done so before only to be rebuffed. The Government turned them down then and will turn them down again. Their argument that without a law passed by Parliament the law will be made by judges will cut no ice. When she gave evidence to the committee, Baroness Scotland from the Lord Chancellor’s Office said that, even if a privacy law was passed, judges would still have to interpret it.

The committee directed most of its recommendations for changes to the PCC. But chairman Sir Christopher Meyer has already embarked on his own programme of reforms and has the backing of Media Secretary Tessa Jowell.

Perhaps more revealing is the committee’s disclosure – made in supplementary and not hitherto published evidence after she faced MPs in public – that Jowell favours PCC judgements being subject to an appeals mechanism independent of government and industry.

She would also like to see more formalised and regular independent scrutiny of the PCC’s procedures.

While Meyer has won more time to settle into his new job, Jowell has left him in no doubt she would like him to carefully consider her ideas for strengthening the commission. Jowell backs self-regulation but it must command public confidence.

To the relief of editors, the MPs have backed away from endorsing the call for an ombudsman, under Ofcom, to hear appeals against PCC judgements. Had they done so that would have opened the way for peers to slap down an amendment to the communications bill, forcing a showdown in the House of Lords.

The newspaper industry is resisting government proposals to involve Ofcom in newspaper takeovers, and giving the media regulator a supervisory role over the PCC would have opened the door to the possibility of state regulation of the press by the backdoor.

Just why have MPs backed away from calling for more extreme proposals? And why did editors fear the MPs would demand them? The answer to the latter stems from the extraordinary hostility displayed by some MPs when they questioned tabloid editors.

When regional editors were called in – a concession only secured after representations by the PCC, the Society of Editors and the Newspaper Society – the MPs’ mood was less hostile.

And when Meyer himself appeared, the committee’s attitude was more positive.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors and an observer at the hearings, is correct in his judgement that, despite the antagonism displayed at times, the MPs seem to have finally accepted that self-regulation works.

David Rose

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