LORD Leveson's proposals for press regulation opened a Pandora's box of legislative confusion.
Yesterday the lid was wrestled back on by all three party leaders at Westminster with an agreement for a royal charter that can only be changed by a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament.
Assurances that such a compromise guarantees that the British press will remain free from political interference appear reasonable. But how reliable are they? If the three main parties at Westminster can shelve their differences on the need for legislation to agree a royal charter on press regulation, is there not a risk that some future parliament could achieve a two-thirds majority to rewrite its terms, or even a simple majority to overturn the two-thirds requirement?
The cross-party agreement meant David Cameron was able to claim yesterday that there would be no law directly mentioning the press – the Rubicon he had said he would not cross – and Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg could also say that the new system would be anchored by legislation. With the three party leaders united by this political fix, the stand-off now is between the politicians and the press.
There is no point in having a regulatory body, no matter how well endowed with teeth, if newspapers do not sign up to it. The key question now is whether the new arrangement of a regulatory body, with tougher powers than the previous Press Complaints Commission, can be put into practice. The incentive to join the regulator, whose work will be verified by a separate independent body, is that publications which remain outside would be subject to greater penalties, specifically very high levels of exemplary damages.
Some newspaper groups still have thick skins but it would be a gamble on their part to stay out when public opinion, outraged by the disgraceful treatment of innocent people by a few London-owned titles, is in favour of greater control.
The Prime Minister described the royal charter as allowing the press to hold the powerful to account without abusing their power. Hacked Off, the victims' pressure group that wanted state regulation, has accepted that a royal charter can deliver the essential principles on regulation outlined by Lord Leveson. Victims of abuse by the press must have proper redress but the phone hacking which led to the Leveson inquiry was illegal and a number of people have been arrested and some are being prosecuted. However, there are still questions to be answered about the working of the new body. In particular, the regional and local papers which are struggling financially fear the cost of fees to join the new regulator and of legal cases brought by those in search of a payout.
This cross-party agreement at Westminster could leave Scotland with a much tighter regulatory system than the rest of the UK. Last week the group commissioned by Alex Salmond to examine how the Leveson proposals could be implemented in Scotland recommended a regulatory body, underpinned by statute, for online news sources as well as newspapers. This has been so strongly and widely criticised that it will be very difficult to implement.
It remains to be seen whether the royal charter solution will be sufficient to overcome the distrust of newspaper publishers. But the Scottish Government must consider afresh the McCluskey recommendations in light of events at Westminster or face renewed concerns about a free press in Scotland being undermined.
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