Why would the government launch a public consultation on legislation that Parliament has already passed by an overwhelming majority? Might they be worried that voters are suddenly enraged or alarmed by some terrible injustice? Are they beset by fears of some kind of popular uprising?
In the case of press regulation and Culture Secretary Karen Bradley’s consultation on post-Leveson reforms, there was no such impetus. For those still wondering why we have just been subjected to several weeks of thundering newspaper editorials featuring “two weeks to save 300 years of press freedom”, the government was nobbled by the same editors and proprietors who have been running rings around our politicians for decades.
So rather than implementing legislation which was passed over three years ago, Bradley’s predecessor John Whittingdale – and then Bradley herself – meekly surrendered to furious press lobbying and agreed to delay the final piece of the Leveson framework which would protect ordinary people with a reasonable case against newspapers from unaffordable court costs. Then, under pressure to resolve the issue, Bradley finally agreed to a consultation which was couched almost entirely in terms of what would benefit the press.
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Hence, the vast number of column centimetres, one-click online links and cut-out coupons which readers were urged to send in as if their very lives (and their democracy) depended on it. Needless to say, those readers were not exactly given a balanced view of the arguments: they were not informed that this cost protection excluded trivial and vexatious claims, and would only apply if deemed fair by the court. Nor were they informed that the provision extended to protection for publishers from libel bullies threatening to bankrupt them with court costs even if the story they were planning was true. An old media version of post-truth, perhaps.
We wait to see the outcome of this politically motivated and press-dominated consultation, but meanwhile what does the public actually want? Have they been moved by desperate protestations of impending doom? Answer: no. A YouGov poll commissioned by Hacked Off and published yesterday demonstrates that public support for meaningful press regulation is as deep-seated as ever.
In a nutshell, the vast majority of the public believe that press behaviour has not changed since Leveson reported, want tougher regulation, and actually have less faith in the industry’s own regulator IPSO (Independent Press Standards Organisation) than they did 18 months ago. Full results are available here, but here are some headlines:
Press conduct: four out of ten believe that press behaviour has got worse over the last four to five years and a further third say it has not changed. Just 14% thought it had improved, a figure which has actually declined from the 23% who gave the same response when the question was asked in April 2015. One in six believe that press behaviour has got much worse.
Press regulation: Almost three in five want tougher regulation of the press (57%) while just 17% are happy with the status quo. These figures have barely changed since YouGov asked an identical question 18 months ago.
IPSO: Since the industry set up its own regulator, newspapers have worked tirelessly to convince the public that Britain now has “the toughest regulator in the Western world”. Despite their efforts, six out of ten still have little or no confidence in IPSO – the same figure as April 2015. In fact, the proportion saying they do have confidence in IPSO has declined from 21% to 15%.
Independent scrutiny: At the heart of the Leveson framework is an argument about accountability. How can the press demonstrate that, like architects, lawyers, social workers and every other industry, editors and owners of powerful newspaper groups are being held independently accountable for their ethical codes?
Here there is a clear majority for Leveson’s solution as a minimum: fewer than one in ten support self-regulation of the press without an external audit. Four out of ten support the Leveson system of an independent external check, and a further 15% believe that Leveson did not go far enough.
Incentives: Finally, asked what should be done if newspapers refused to participate in the Leveson system, six out of ten of those who expressed a preference (61%) supported a law requiring newspapers to join an independent regulator. Just over a quarter (27%) preferred some kind of penalties/benefits incentives system, while just one out of ten supported newspapers’ right to choose whether or not to join.
It would be a huge mistake to dismiss Britain’s press industry as a dying ember of a bygone age, with declining circulations and declining power. There is a very good reason why Theresa May “popped in” to see Rupert Murdoch during her 36 hours in New York last September, why editors and owners are still wined and dined. They are still political power brokers, and they still wield enormous political influence in setting policy and broadcasting agendas.
For 70 years, while some newspaper journalists have produced brilliant and ground-breaking investigations, others have worked in newsrooms which fostered bullying, blagging, intimidation and intrusion into grief – what Tom Stoppard once called “junk journalism” in contrast to the rather more heroic “St George journalism”.
Leveson found a way of protecting the latter while restraining the former – and protecting those ordinary people who suffered most from the ravages of press mistreatment. In her rousing conference speech in October, Theresa May pledged “to stand up for the weak and stand up to the strong.” She knows where the public stands on the need to rein in unaccountable and overly powerful press proprietors. Will she stand up to them?
YouGov survey (online): sample size 1,629 adults, fieldwork between 5th-6th January 2017. Figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).