Problems with Labour's press plan
The Labour party has today released their draft “Press Freedom and Trust Bill”, outlining a system of statutory press regulation in which an independent watchdog is overseen by a “Recognition Panel”, led by the Lord Chief Justice. The intent of the publication is mainly political, since even the backing of a Commons majority would not convince David Cameron to initiate what he has so publically opposed.
Nevertheless, the intended effect of the bill is to further encourage Coalition supporters of statutory regulation to increase the pressure on David Cameron, while it is also hoped that the brevity of Labour’s bill might contrast positively with the Government’s own draft legislation, which is widely expected to be half-hearted and byzantine.
But those short-term goals rely on the “Press Freedom and Trust Bill” being of good quality and reasonably comprehensive. Otherwise Labour looks likely to invalidate its own position, by demonstrating the impossibility of devising the regulatory structures that they are calling for.
Here are a few problematic aspects of the draft:
The basic aim of statutory underpinning is to make press membership of an independent regulator compulsory or unavoidable, in order to prevent the possibility of a Desmond-style walk out occurring. But, wishing to avoid the toxic notion of “state licensing”, Labour’s bill only details incentives, like lower court costs, which would encourage newspapers to sign up. Not to be found is the crucial explanation of how publications would be compelled to join. For join they must, if we are not to restore a voluntary regulator and the status quo ante, which has already been expressly rejected by Leveson and by parliament.
Whither independence? (§2.4):
Minimalistic notions of “underpinning” seem to have been dispensed with. A “Recognition Panel”, led by a judge, is to check that the regulator is performing its duties. The power of the “Recognition Panel” is substantial, going far beyond mere validation. It will be able to review the conduct of the regulator at any time and compose public reports on its behaviour. It will also be able to give “advice or guidance” to the regulator, and indicate its “expectation” of what the regulator should be doing. If their instructions are not obeyed, the “Recognition Panel” can revoke the regulator’s status. In response, then, to the vexed question, “Who will guard the guardians?”, Labour’s answer appears to be unequivocal: the state.
It’s all in the name:
Labour’s independent press regulator is to be known as a “press standards trust”. Does that name sound slightly familiar? Leveson enthusiasts will remember that the parent organisation of slick lobbyists Hacked Off is none other than the “Media Standards Trust”. Charlie Falconer, Labour’s legal adviser on the bill, has a long association with both Hacked Off and the Media Standards Trust. Did he pinch their name, besides their agenda? He is featured approvingly on the website of the Media Standards Trust as far back as 2007, for stating that “Openness is not an absolute good in itself", and he was present at the launch of Hacked Off in the House of Lords last year. Why has such a partial figure been involved with this bill at all?
These issues convey, in microcosm, the dilemmas and impracticalities in establishing a state-backed regulatory scheme for the press. The post-Leveson political argument has a long way to run, but it is problems of ethics and principle that will prove the hardest to resolve.