Leveson debate must be brought back from brink
Basic principles are at stake as confusion reigns ahead of Monday's vote, says Index chief executive Kirsty Hughes
17 Mar 13

Index logo xBasic principles are at stake as confusion reigns ahead of Monday’s vote, says Index chief executive Kirsty Hughes

Ahead of Monday’s vote in parliament, we now face a  shambolic and confused set of proposals, counter-proposals and amendments to bills instead of a serious, clear and honest debate on press freedom and press regulation. Amidst the confusion, it is important to pull out some clear points of principle.

Politicians voting on press regulation:
If press freedom,and freedom of expression, are to be respected as fundamental rights, politicians should not vote on specific laws and rules aimed at the press. The press cannot be under politicians’ thumbs if they are to hold power to account, and the press must obey the law like anyone else. But press laws or MPs voting on how the press is regulated are the tools of authoritarian regimes.

Political Control?
Both sides have moved towards a degree of political involvement in press regulation that is undesirable –– even if Clegg and Miliband have gone further.

Both Cameron’s and Clegg-Miliband’s proposals now involve MPs voting  on the control and characteristics of a press regulator. This is highly undesirable.

Secondly, Cameron’s Royal Charter proposal has a requirement of a two-thirds majority in both Houses before the Charter can be changed –– it’s a form of statutory underpinning and is undesirable.

Thirdly, the Clegg/Miliband proposal goes beyond this, wanting a form of statute (introduced into another bill — probably Crime and Courts bill) to underpin in law a Royal Charter (preferably their version). This is breach of the basic principle of politicians not  passing laws on the press.

Fourthly, both sides now favour a Royal Charter — but this fudge involves politicians in the Privy Council determining how the press is regulated.  It’s not independence, it’s political.

Exemplary Damages
There appears to be somewhat more agreement between the two sides that some form of penalty for staying outside the regulator. But exemplary damages could well be struck down the European Court of Human Rights as essentially unfair. Agreement between the sides is no guarantee that basic principles are being respected — they are not.

Both sides versions of the Royal Charter also say that a publisher is any website carrying news-related material, with news being defined to include gossip on celebrities. In the age of Twitter and Tumblr will we all risk exemplary damages when we comment on the internet?

Press Veto on the Regulator
Cameron’s version of how the so-called appointments panel decides who is on the board of the press regulator says it must be a unanimous decision. This allows any press member of the appointments panel, even if in a minority, to have an effective veto. This makes a mockery of the idea of an independent board. Clegg-Miliband’s proposal simply says the appointments panel should take a view on who is on the board (but doesn’t discuss what happens if the panel is split three: two –– is that good enough?). There are serious issues here but with Monday’s vote looming there is no time for a serious wider debate.

Directing or Requiring Corrections and Apologies
The two sides also have differences over the degree of power the press regulator should have to “require” corrections and apologies or to “direct” them. There are important issues here. Apologies hidden at the bottom of a page may be unreasonable. A regulator stepping into the shoes of an editor and determining what goes on the page where is a major intrusion. Yet again there is now no time to have a serious political debate — not just restricted to politicians — about the way forward.

There are other differences but these are some of the main ones. Yet instead of an open public debate, many of these issues have been the subject of bargaining behind closed doors — bargaining which has apparently involved all three parties, some of the press, and Hacked Off. Now the proposals are in the open but amidst a confusion on even exactly what the MPs will vote on this Monday.

Hacked Off, speaking for some of the victims of phone hacking, continues its high pressure lobby insisting that the test of any agreement is whether the victims support it. But when, in democratic life, was it ever agreed that laws and regulations should be written by victims? The many victims of the Mid-Staffs NHS appalling dereliction of duties and standards deserve answers and there is a clear need for change – but noone suggests those victims and their families should have the sole say on NHS reform. Yet this is the situation we are in on press regulation.

Politicians on all sides should step back, look at the shambles they have created, remind themselves of the basic principles of freedom of expression, press freedom and democracy, and call off this chaotic vote on Monday, a vote that could tarnish British democracy and undermine our long history of press freedom.