Relying on the press to tell you honestly about press regulation is like expecting sunshine for a wedding in December. With that in mind, I thought perhaps I’d clarify a couple of points, given that our esteemed politicians have just agreed upon a new way to spank the press when they offend (read: lie) about people.
A few quotes to illustrate my point, from the UK’s three most-read newspapers:
The Sun (readership 2,409,811): ‘Our democracy is tarnished: Outrage at parties’ clampdown on free Press’
The Mirror (readership 1,058,488): ‘The day the Press was shackled: Feeble Cameron bows to pressure and paves way for Ministry of Truth’
And my personal favourite:
The Daily Mail (readership 1,863,151): ‘For centuries men and women fought and died for freedom of expression. Who are Miliband and Clegg to throw it away?’
Note the capitalisation of ‘Press’? Subliminal much.
Last night, in the wee hours, the leaders of Britain’s three main parties (Cameron, Miliband and Clegg) finally agreed on a way to regulate the press, which they backed up in law with a ‘Royal Charter’ (Bedtime reading here).
1) Complaints can be made and heard for free.
2) The press can work out its own code of conduct.
3) That code of conduct will be held up by a regulator – an organisation which monitors the press and hears complaints. If a newspaper breaks the rules, the regulator can “direct” them to apologise and make corrections in a “proportionate” manner. i.e. a big front page picture and headline which incorrectly slams some poor celebrity as being a whore may have to be corrected by a big front page picture and headline admitting the paper was wrong.
4) The law can’t easily be castrated by future governments.
A bit of history
The previous regulator was the Press Complaints Commission, an organisation which newspapers could join voluntarily and which had the power to negotiate (mostly) the appearance of corrections and apologies. When a young girl called Milly Dowler was murdered, people were disgusted that the (now closed) News of the World hacked her voicemail messages, leading her parents to believe (wrongly) that she was alive. Outrage ensued and the press’s dirty laundry was hung out. Politicians eventually asked Lord Leveson to set up an enquiry to look into press regulation and how the industry had got so tainted. Activist groups like Hacked Off, led by prominent celebrities like Hugh Grant, stood behind the enquiry. If you want to see Lord Leveson summarise his conclusions, see here.
Why should I care?
You don’t have to. For most people, this new regulation won’t make the slightest bit of difference to their lives. For some, including celebrities like JK Rowling and the royal family, or ordinary people like Milly Dowler’s parents, it will. TheSpikeUK on YouTube has some hilarious tabloid takedowns to illustrate the sort of thing that the Royal Charter is trying to tackle. Even while pointing the finger at pro-reformers for stifling free speech, The Sun continues to misbehave.
Let’s be clear, this fight is about two things: power (politicians vs newspaper owners) and being able to say whatever the hell you like. Let’s deal with the second one first (because I like to keep you on your toes).
Second thing: You can still say whatever the hell you like. But if you publish it in a newspaper, make sure it’s true and you have evidence, because otherwise you might have to admit you were wrong.
First thing: Power. There is a very good reason that Tony Blair flew to Australia in 1995 when he was Labour leader. In his words: to stop Rupert Murdoch’s papers (Times, Sunday Times, Sun, News of the World) and TV provider Sky “tearing us to pieces“. Current PM David Cameron also maintained good relationships with Murdoch’s editors.
Bottom line: Outrage. Disagreement. Negotiation. Status quo.