Press regulation – after a bad party comes the hangover

“NOW KNOW YE that We by Our Prerogative Royal of Our especial grace, certain knowledge and mere motion do by this Our Charter for Us, Our Heirs and Successors will, ordain and declare as follows…”

All Hail the Central Recogniser! [with apologies to the ghost of the late great Frank Zappa]…

“It is my responsibility to enforce all the laws that haven’t been passed yet. It is also my responsibility to alert each and every one of you to the potential consequences of various ordinary everyday activities you might be performing.”

Described by one unnamed participant as a “bad party”, with participants scattered in various rooms, the coffee, biscuits and pizza-fuelled deal on press regulation reached by an unholy alliance of Britain’s political class and Hacked Off, a celebrity PR and pro-censorship lobby group, is in danger of collapsing before the ink has dried on the House of Commons order papers.

News International, the Daily Mail Group, the Telegraph Media Group, Northern and Shell, the Newspaper Society and Professional Publishers Association are refusing to sign up to a Royal Charter which for the first time in 300 years allows for statutory political interference in press affairs. Our leading newspapers and political periodicals are effectively telling the politicians and Hacked Off where they can stuff their regulator, and even the diplomatic Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe has condemned the deal. Index on Censorship says that “…Britain has abandoned a democratic principle”.

“The phone-hacking scandal was a criminal issue and the people involved are being prosecuted. This should not be used as an excuse to rein in all print media.” [Dunja Mijatović, OSCE]

We talk of newspapers, but before long these will cease to exist, further blurring the line between the mainstream journalistic media and corporate pseudo-blogosphere. Online media will, going by the wording of the Royal Charter, be subject to the new regulatory regime, and while the politicians responsible for this dog’s breakfast of draft legislation are insistent that bedroom bloggers speaking their brains about life, the universe and everything will not be affected, the proposed law is such that judges and lawyers will interpret it as they see fit.

The debate around Leveson has so far focused on the big picture, but the devil is in the detail, with much of it local in nature. Regional newspapers, which are going to the wall in alarming numbers as the result of editorial underinvestment and unfair competition in the form of local government-funded town hall pravdas, could be dealt a fatal blow by the new arbitration regime.

Councils unhappy with local journalistic scrutiny will have a field day, and all it will take to wreck the local press are numerous and repeated challenges to minor questions of fact. Local media will be unable to cope with the cost of politically-motivated legal challenges and compensation claims, and the result will be self-censorship on a massive scale. The Royal Charter completely ignores Brian Leveson’s recommendations concerning local media.

This sordid deal will likely lead to a less accountable press. I can see the more problematic investigative journalism being increasingly published under pseudonymous bylines on distributed internet servers, with mainstream media tip-toeing around it in op-ed form, citing public interest as legal justification. Information will still get into the public domain, one way or another, but testing its veracity will become that much more difficult.

When all is said and done, this is not about Madeleine McCann, Milly Dowler and other innocent victims of phone hacking which is now subject to criminal law investigations. It concerns politicians and other public figures controlling and protecting their interests for selfish ends.