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What next for the gutter press?

1 November 2012

Lord Leveson will be publishing his recommendations for the future of press regulation very soon, and those on both sides of the debate are getting nervous. The Hacked Off campaign has a letter in today’s Financial Times opposing plans for continued self-regulation of the industry that is signed by 26 professors in journalism, law and politics. The letter attacks proposals by Lord Hunt and Lord Black for self-regulation which would be underpinned by contracts between the regulator and the publisher which would be enforceable through civil law. It says:

‘We do not believe these proposals to be in the best interests of journalists and journalism. The Hunt-Black scheme is an attempt to perpetuate self-regulation by editors, an approach that has been shown over nearly 60 years to have failed both journalists and newspaper readers – a failure that led to the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry. While the new scheme incorporates some features not seen in the discredited PCC, we believe these changes are insufficient to promote good journalism or to protect the public from the kinds of abuses highlighted so vividly in evidence to Lord Justice Leveson.’

Another member of the campaign, Hugh Grant, speaks out against self-regulation in this week’s Spectator. He writes that the campaign is not made up of ‘muzzlers’ or ‘lefties’, but that it wants the press to ‘obey the law and comply consistently with a fair and decent code of practice’. Grant argues that the press would eventually grow used to a new independent regulator, saying:

‘We don’t know what Leveson will -recommend. But let’s assume he won’t back yet another helping of self-regulation (the so-called Hunt/Black plan). Let’s say he proposes a new regulator, independent both of the industry and of government, and with the minimum statutory underpinning to make it effective. According to a recent YouGov poll, that would be supported by 77 per cent of the UK population. Many of the national newspapers, on the other hand, say it will be the end of freedom of the press. But will it really?

‘It’s similar to how the judiciary, lawyers and doctors are regulated in this country. And none wanted to be regulated, but they’re fine with it now. In terms of regulation it would be nothing in comparison to how Ofcom or the BBC Trust regulate the broadcasting industries, and it’s hard to find a broadcast journalist who complains of being chilled or constrained.’

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Our cover story this week underlines some of the problems with Grant’s approach. Alexander Chancellor writes that ‘the very idea of statutory press regulation is antithetical to the idea of press freedom’, while Boris Johnson says the current ‘gutter press’ keeps our politics clean:

‘Government in this country is as clean of financial corruption as anywhere in the world. That is largely thanks to a free and inquisitive media. To rinse the gutters of public life you need a gutter press.’

James points out that ‘nearly every issue’ that Leveson has examined is already covered by the law, arguing that ‘what is needed is not a new law setting up a new regulator but better application of the existing law’. Fraser describes a conversation with an MP who tried to persuade him to discipline a Spectator writer who had annoyed him:

‘It was a preposterous suggestion, but he was limbering up for a post-Leveson era in which the press will have to take note of what people like him think. Soon, such MPs may have control of a regulatory device that can be ratcheted up, inflicting further pain on newspapers already fighting for survival.’

Kirsty Walker, meanwhile, doubts that Lord Leveson himself has a particularly sympathetic attitude towards newspapers, given his reaction to a report in The Times that the TV series The Thick of It planned to satirise his inquiry.

David Cameron will soon face the unenviable task of having to decide whether to accept or reject the Leveson recommendations. As James says in his column this week, the former will ‘earn him the ire of most newspapers and many Tory MPs’, and the latter will land him ‘in an argument with the victims of phone hacking’. It will be one of the big tests of his leadership in the months ahead.

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Show comments
  • Andrew SW18

    I fear Hugh Grant is the new Brigitte Bardot – a failed and largely forgotten sometime pretty actor desperately boarding a fashionable leftist bandwagon in the vain hope of attracting a last flicker of attention. Scarcely dignified.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Hugh Grant is not a failed actor. You clearly haven’t met any failed actors. But of course it is laughable that his opinions should have any weight whatever. Why don’t we go and ask a footballer or a Page Three girl? Or my newsagent, come to that. His opinions are intelligent and he reads the papers, or at least the front bits of them..

      What’s wrong with Murdoch anyway? At least he doesn’t run a bordello on the premises.

  • Jupiter

    Why should a numpty like Lord Leveson get to decide how the press is regulated? Who is he anyway – I don’t remember him ever winning an election to anything.

    The PM should tell him to stick his report where the sun doesn’t shine.

    • Daniel Maris

      Agreed. He’s a nobody and not particularly bright judging from the stumbling off-target questions he was wont to ask.

  • Dimoto

    No need to call them the “gutter press”, the “quality” long ago stooped to conquer.
    All of the “quality papers” are up to their necks in tittle-tattle and “questionable practices”.
    Apparently, they are convinced that garbage and negativity are the only things that sell.
    So regulation will hasten their inevitable demise, and we will have another cohort of unemployable semi-literates on the street.
    With 5th generation cell ‘phones, infinitely more efficient at spreading prurient garbage, mythology, trivia and porn, I really doubt that anyone much will care.
    The press died ten years ago, but doesn’t know it.
    Only a judge or barrister could answer the question: why anyone would listen to the opinion of nonentities like Grant and Coogan,

  • Daniel Maris

    It’s a bit late for the Spectator to stand up for free speech. It’s had plenty of opportunities to do so, not lease the Mo cartoon incidents. Charlie Hebdo beat you lot hands down.

    You could also have opposed this inquiry energetically from the start and thrown lots of rotten veg and ordure at that waste of space Leverson presiding over a waste of time.What do you think he’s going to say? “We need more free speech.”? Hmmm….

    The only change of law I would like to see is a right of reply through the equivalent of a small claims court, allowing people to get an “equal prominence” reply to respond to serious inaccuracies. That will help the little guy who currently has no protection.

  • caress that whip

    You’re asking people to take seriously an issue championed by Hugh Grant, that limp squab showbiz lefty? Come on, I. Hardman. Get with it.

    The squab wants somebody to decide which speech is permissible, and which is not, and how speech malefactors might be dealt with. There is nothing new under the sun, and these feints toward tyranny are nothing new.

  • DavidDP

    “He writes that the campaign is not made up of ‘muzzlers’ or ‘lefties’,”
    I beg to differ…….

  • eeore

    The law prohibits the hacking of phones. There are laws that prohibit the misuse of private information. There are laws that regulate the way in which the police are supposed to act in relation to the media.

    Surely the issue is why these laws are not enforced.

    But no, the answer is to create more laws and new bodies to regulate them.

    • Coffeehousewall

      Of course. The aim of all state initiatives and activities is to increase the power and reach of the state. Nothing less. The state could care less about law. It only uses that which is useful in its ambition.

      • eeore

        I guess that explains why this commission has been implemented – and we know Sir Humphrey’s view on commissions – before the legal cases and police investigations have been concluded.

    • dalai guevara

      Repatriate Morgan and Yates, or even Goodwin – I will be personally available to make a citizen’s arrest. What this would also aid is work in favour of the ex-pat to immigrant ratio.

    • telemachus

      No the answer is as it should be to stick boot to the manipulative right wing press owners-Rothermere, Desmond, Murdoch and co

      • Baron

        and leave your beloved BBC, telemachus, to tell us what to think? Arghhh

        • telemachus

          At least the BBC does not have prprietors choking off compassion and reasonableness
          Have you seen the daily scaremongering of the Telegraph and Mail on the Death Pathway
          They should be ashamed
          They should be shut down

    • Baron

      Yup, just as Lenin, the founder of the nationwide Gulag in the East would have liked it ‘he who controls the press controls the masses’.

  • William Blakes Ghost

    Journalists argue against regulation? Go figure.

    Whilst I note the point about freedom of speech (but not about extending what is nothing more than a pretense that this is a free democratic nation ~ given the ever increasing centralisation of power, the almost perpetual gerrymandering of the electoral system by the establishment parties, the betrayal in handing over sovereignty to the EU, the unappointed quangoes and agencies etc etc.) does anyone else think that having journalists defend freedom of speech against Leveson is a bit like burglars arguing against security alarms and dead bolts on doors? The profession of journalism has proven itself rotten to the core (just as the political classes have proven themselves to be so as well) not just over hacking but over decades with its calculated misrepresentation, faux hysteria and obscene salaciousness so any platitudes about freedom of speech from journalists not only come with the foul stench of self-interest but are utterly undeserved. Journalists along with politicians and others in the media e.g. the Marketing industry have done more to undermine and abuse the concept of ‘Freedom Of Speech’ than the rest of society put together. Consequently how can we know take seriously anything they say on such matters. Its like Jimmy Saville giving advice on childcare.

    Of course what can one expect from an industry that is owned by a Porn Magnate, A former KGB Agent, two brothers who seem to favour feudalism for their home island and a hereditary Peer and thats before we even consider the Murdochs or past owners such as Maxwell or Black. Frankly our media is as rotten, corrupted and delusional as our political elite. I can see only one course if regulation (let’s call that Plan A) cannot be devised which protects both the electorate’s right to freedom of speech as private citizens whilst curtailing the abuse and malfeasance undertaken by our media elite and that is (to adapt the words of WIlliam Shakespeare ~ call it Plan B):

    The first thing we do, let’s kill all the journalists (as well as the politicians and lawyers).

    As for fears that Plan A would allow the Government (or other associated political bodies) influencing the media or worse using them to disseminate propaganda, that just wouldn’t happen. After all just look at the BBC. Oh wait a minute……..

    Plan B it is then……….

    • Baron

      William, good rant, how could anyone seriously talk about the freedom of expression and an agency to regulate it in one sentence beggars belief. One either has one or the other, the two as exclusive as day and night.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    What we need is swift and inexpensive resort to law for those who feel they have been unfairly treated by the press. Something like the small claims court with powers to fine and award compensation and enforce publication of apologies in a timely manner, in print as big as the headline of the libel. Claims to be made with a simple on-line procedure. No high-price QCs even for the millionaires. Where the law of the land has been broken, we already have a system for that.

    • FRANKP1

      Pragmatic and just. The Klapp formula should be implemented forthwith and Leveson’s lot disbanded. The debauched douchebags like Grant, Moseley, Coogan, et al should be told that their lascivious life-styles are fair game; celebrity has it drawbacks and they shouldn’t be allowed to turn the publicity tap off and on as it suits them.

      • Baron

        not only pragmatic and just, but also within the framework of the law. That should be the way to go, not yet another semi judicial quango that will do BA, cost a fortune, just look at the experience of the financial industry, where were all the agencies that were supposed to do the watching when they were needed?

        • FrenchNews

          Exactly, no ifs, no buts, no Leveson. We need full support for freedom of expression fundamentalists. The bedrock of democracy is free speech.

    • HellforLeather

      Rhoda Klapp

      It’s a pity that none of us had the sense to suggest to Leveson that he summon you in order to hear your sensible views!

    • HooksLaw

      Various people who have had their phones hacked may well deserve some compensation, but given the desire for publicity and fame that these people cultivate the actual amount of compensation should be about 1p.

      The issue is not one of law its one of regulation. The press regulates itself at the moment. The suggested option is that it should be an independent authority.

      There are legal issues that surround the Jimmy Savile affair, but there are also journalistic ones that need to be addressed; who should do that? Should the BBC police itself? Well so far it has chosen independent investigators, but it has selected them itself.
      If an independent body already existed then that body might well be doing that job now.

    • Maidmarrion

      Could we include the broadcast media in the BIG apology bit?

  • Torontory

    Many of the key points are in this post: the existing law could be used in nearly all the areas of the Leveson review; the negative effects of Leveson are already in place; how do you define journalists – we are all journalists now; freedom of expression ought to be an absolute right (our libel laws are already some of the most favourable to the litigant anywhere).

    As Kirsty Walker reminds us in her article Leveson was against satire of himself in ‘The Thick of It’ – clear indication of his views on freedom of expression!

    A legally regulated press is not what anyone in a free society should wish for. The solution is to have a body or bodies that will enforce the regulations and laws already available. Gove’s evidence to Leveson was some of the most compelling, despite giving obvious irritation to Leveson.

  • anyfool

    Grant wants them to, ‘obey the law and comply consistently with a fair and decent code of practice’, he should be shouting at the police as it is they who have been wallowing in press money, if the police did their job decency and fair play would follow as newspapers would play better safe than sorry.
    as to the choice you say Cameron faces, between the ire of newspapers and MPs and a few minor celebrities, that is not a choice, he would just laugh at people like Grant as they are never going to vote for him, as only teenagers and star struck journalists give a fig about this blowhards opinions.

  • HooksLaw

    The press deserve all they get. Its true that ‘celebrities’ who find themselves in the news have no one to blame but themselves, but you and Nelson and others are hardly without self interest and we see from your own remarks how inadequate you are.

    Is anyone saying the govt should regulate the press? I think not. If its an independent body – then welcome to the real world where actions have consequences.
    The absurd gyrations the press have been getting up to bring calumny on themselves. Your own fellow hacks have dropped you in it and who do you blame (and therefore who do you threaten)?

    You’re pathetic.

    • HellforLeather

      Yep, I for one think the politicians played a role in this mess (and many other messes, including the financial crisis). The hacking dirt first emerged under the last government and both they and the current lot turned a blind eye.

      Politicians are there to hold governments — and institutions like the BOE and former FSA — to account, not to drench their snouts in expenses troughs, as they continue to do.

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