Why politicians must thrash out a press regulation compromise next week

Most people seem to disagree with Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre’s opinion that Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband was ‘the man who hated Britain’.

For what it's worth, when I asked Press Gazette's 43,000 Twitter followers this morning if the Mail was right to describe the late Mr Miliband in this way all 20 who responded said no.

The fact that Ralph Miliband fought for us on the beaches of Normandy and the testimony of his family, friends and others would appear to trump the central charge in that headline.

But as we approach a decisive moment in the long, long debate over the future of press regulation we have to ask ourselves a question.

What is more dangerous? A belligerent, fearless and sometimes arrogant press? Or a supine one, which is reluctant to hold the powerful to account and which rolls over when it comes under attack from politicians.

The Daily Mail did give Ed Miliband a right of reply, even allowing him to attack the paper in its own pages saying “there is no credible argument in the article or evidence from his life which can remotely justify the lurid headline and its accompanying claim that it would ‘disturb everyone who loves this country’”.

The Mail should perhaps have left it there, but it went on to condemn Ralph Miliband’s “evil legacy”, describe Ed Miliband’s response as a “strop” and question the integrity of his motives.

Now, after an incident on Wednesday when a Mail on Sunday reporter ‘doorstepped’ the memorial service of Ed Miliband’s uncle, the Labour leader is explicitly using the experiences of this week as leverage in the debate over press regulation.

Next week the Privy Council (comprising Government ministers) will meet to decide whether to back Parliament’s proposed statute-backed system of press regulation or the model agreed by publishers under a rival Royal Charter (more detail on how the two systems differ here).

Using language taken from the framework of the Leveson Inquiry, Miliband said in his letter to Mail proprietor Lord Rothermere: “Sending a reporter to my late uncle's memorial crosses a line of common decency. I believe it a symptom of the culture and practices of both the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday.

"There are many decent people working at those newspapers and I know that many of them will be disgusted by this latest episode. But they will also recognise that what has happened to my family has happened to many others.

"Instead, I am writing to you as the owners of the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday because I believe it is long overdue that you reflect on the culture of your newspapers.

"You should conduct your own swift investigation into who was responsible at a senior level for this latest episode and also who is responsible for the culture and practices of these newspapers which jar so badly with the values of your readers.”

But no system of press regulation is going to stop editors writing headlines that sometimes go too far (nor should it) or is going to stop reporters sometimes misjudging when it is appropriate to approach someone for a comment.

In the context of the current row it was breathtakingly crass of the Mail on Sunday to send a reporter to Professor Harry Keen’s memorial service. But a reporter approaching a member of the public and asking their opinion about a matter of public interest is not the worst crime in the history of Fleet Street.

It has caused the current debate to explode because it gives the impression that the Mail titles are playing the man and not the ball and using Ed Miliband’s family to get at him.

But it is again difficult to see how such concerns about the Mail's tactics can be turned into regulation.

If the Privy Council goes ahead and backs Parliament’s statute-backed press regulator in its current form next week, there is a danger that self-regulation of the press could collapse altogether.

The current indications are that publishers would refuse to sign up to such a system and their new fledgling press regulator – the Independent Press Standards Organisation – could be strangled at birth.

For their part, politicians on all sides of the fence have indicated that the publishers’ Pressbof Royal Charter fails the Leveson test in areas like independence and the provision of a libel disputes arbitration service.

Next week, the political grandstanding needs to come to an end and the Coalition Government needs to come up with a compromise system of press regulation which the publishers can sign up to but which is independent enough to satisfy the concerns which the victims of past press excesses have about backsliding. As David Cameron himself said last month, the two rival press regulation Royal Charters are not that far apart.

Without a workable system of press regulation in place, an ordinary member of the public who found themselves in the same position as Ed Miliband did on Saturday could in the future find themselves with nowhere to turn.

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