Thursday, 21 March 2013

Belated comments on legal legs

Under the proposed Royal Charter (22 page pdf) on press regulation, I and countless other bloggers are "relevant publishers", being:

 a website containing news-related material (whether or not related to a 
newspaper or magazine)

It seems that if I had not joined a regulator approved under the Charter I would be liable to exemplary damages* if I transgressed the regulator's code of conduct. Since the cost of joining could be in excess of £400,000 (an estimate by a Fleet Street editor, based on membership of the current Press Complaints Council), I shall take my chance and remain outside, bearing in mind that I haven't been sued under the current régime and do not intend to defame anybody in the future.

Anyway, for what they're worth, here are my comments on some the views expressed in the Commons emergency debate following the late-night discussions on Leveson last Monday.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with me—and, I think, with most people in the House—that the terrible practice of phone hacking is already a criminal offence, and that no further legislation is needed, not even a tiny bit, to deal with the problem?
The Deputy Prime Minister: Lord Justice Leveson looked at this matter extensively and said that, in addition to taking action when the criminal law had been broken, further reassurance was needed to ensure that innocent people had recourse to justice when they were being intimidated or bullied in an unjustified way.
This is the point. Although it was the hacking of Millie Dowler's mobile phone which probably tipped the scales in favour of a public inquiry, the major benefit of Leveson is that ordinary people who cannot afford to take civil action** and who have been traduced by the press will at last be guaranteed some redress. One thinks of Chris Jefferies or Colin Stagg, both convicted of murder in the eyes of the press, though both were completely innocent, or of Carmen Proetta, whose reputation was trashed by the Murdoch press because her testimony contradicted the Thatcher government's line on an extra-judicial execution in Gibraltar. (One assumes that as the citizen of a British territory, Mrs Proetta would have been covered by the proposed Charter, but perhaps this needs spelling out.) As Sir Roger Gale said later in the debate:
It was when my right hon. Friend Lord Wakeham was chairman of the Press Complaints Commission that I first raised with him my concerns about the manner in which only the super-rich could obtain redress through libel action, while ordinary people nursing ordinary grievances had nowhere to run to, because at that time the PCC was the creature of the press. It was paid for by the press, it was run by the press and it was self-serving. It was a sadness that even the black arts of my right hon. Friend, learnt in the Whips Office over many years, failed to address the machinations of newspaper proprietors and newspaper editors.

Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): Is not the prize here the fact that a free press will still be able to expose wrongdoing, but not at the expense of trashing people’s lives? 
Simon Hughes: That is a very good summary.
Nothing in the charter nor the amendments agreed to on Monday allow the government to dictate to or to censor the press.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): Some years ago, my profession, the legal profession, went through a similar process, and we now have an overarching body, the Legal Services Board, which recognises independent regulation. There was a worry that that would interfere with the independence of the Bar and solicitors, but the truth is that solicitors and barristers go about their daily work without having to look over their shoulder at a recognising body. In fact, that body is enshrined in statute and has a wider remit that anything I have read about in this royal charter. For those reasons, we can confidently support the agreement that has been reached between all parties in this House and look forward to a time when the victims of wrongdoing will receive a fairer deal.
Indeed. Why should the press be the only profession in Britain not to have a code of conduct underpinned by law?

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): We have to read up to schedule 4 of the charter before it sets out to whom it applies. It states that a “‘relevant publisher’ means a person…who publishes in the United Kingdom…a newspaper or magazine…or…a website containing news-related material”. That is why it is so unrealistic, because websites can be set up anywhere in the world.
This is rather like arguing that because guns and pharmaceuticals can be bought over the Internet, it is not realistic to regulate their sale over the counter in this country. [Mark Steel mode off] In practice, the print media with their associated web sites should benefit from the standing that membership of a chartered regulator will give them. An unregulated blog, whether hosted in the UK or abroad, has as much credibility as the Sunday Sport.

Dr Wollaston: There is a risk that we will abandon the printed press for the online news media, and what will happen then to our particularly vulnerable regional and local press? Who will be there to report from the courts?
Dr Wollaston is fortunate if her local paper gives comprehensive court reports these days. Another MP has suggested that the political independence of the local press would be compromised by the proposed Charter, to which I would reply that unless he is in one of those increasingly rare areas which is served by more than one journal, his local paper is already compromised by being owned by a conglomerate which has an overt allegiance to either the Conservative or the Labour Party.

Another view which is often expressed is that newspapers exist to hold government and powerful people to account. Not so; newspapers are commercial entities, vehicles for the sale of news, entertainment and opinion. Even the owners of loss-making newspapers carry on in the hope that they will make money. We are fortunate that there are journalists who see their duty as reporting all the news, including that which others try to suppress, but (sadly) the Great British Press could survive without them.

The Charter, and the clauses which permit the levying of damages, will not cure two of the evils which Leveson exposed, namely the unhealthy relationship between media proprietors, leading politicians and the police, and the reluctance of the authorities to prosecute when newspapers are involved. But they will go a long way to protect ordinary members of the public and there is just a hint that Parliament will look into the question of media ownership.

*An honourable member pointed out in Monday's debate that the concept of exemplary damages does not exist in Scotland, so the government has a problem to solve in respect of publishers north of the Border.
**Legal aid is not available for actions for slander or libel

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