Coffee House

Who speaks for the British press?

4 December 2012

At the end of the editors’ meeting in 10 Downing St today, there was an awkward moment when someone asked if the past hour had been on or off the record. There was something odd about the idea of a bunch of journalists keeping something secret, and anyway there was anyway not much to reveal: it was just the start of a discussion. But a very important one that could yet decide whether Britain retains its ancient tradition of press freedom.

David Cameron restated his position: that he’s instinctively against statutory regulation, but wants to see self-regulation along the lines of the Leveson Report. And could the newspaper industry deliver that?

Something else was clear from the meeting: the test was not so much if it passed Cameron’s personal approval, but whether he could get it past parliament where there is (at present) a majority in favour of statutory intervention. That’s a harder hurdle. With Labour threatening a vote in January, it might well come down to whether the press has persuaded a majority of MPs (including the George Eustices of this world) that statutory regulation is a bad idea.

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But for all the drama, there is not much distance between what the industry has already proposed and what Lord Leveson outlined. It’s certainly not a gap so large that it would need parliamentary regulation to close it.

But here’s the thing: who speaks for the newspapers? One of the editors told Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, that this is not an industry that is used to collaboration. And that’s putting it politely. The journalists around that table get up every morning dreaming up ways of scooping each other, and producing a newspaper that’s demonstrably better than anyone else’s. They may respect each other individually, but their day job is war. Tony Gallagher, editor of the Daily Telegraph, said on Twitter that it felt like the summoning of the five families of the Mafia. I can see what he means: the British press is the most fiercely-competitive industries in the world. In which other country in the world does the consumer have a dozen papers to choose from when they walk into a newsagent?

All this is great for democracy. No one can ‘square the press’ in Britain; there are too many publications who dislike each other too much. The rivalry is the reason why the hacking scandal was exposed in the first place. But this rivalry may be one of the biggest practical obstacles now. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger: whom does Maria Miller speak to when she wants to call the British press? Who would be the union rep of the five families? Who is Fleet St’s equivalent of the BBC Director General? There isn’t one, which of course is the very point of Fleet St. The British press is almost comically incapable of colluding over anything — which is (to me) why Fleet St is one of the best things about Britain.

But precisely this quality now makes the press more vulnerable to attack. It encourages MPs who say that Fleet St’s failure to agree something collectively means that the state needs to foist something upon them.

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Show comments
  • Julian Kavanagh

    Is David Lindsay more than one person? I am in awe of his (their?) ability to monitor Coffee House and comment at length at all times of the day or night. It’s impressive and deeply weird.

    • JabbaTheCat

      Public sector employee higher education?

  • Sarah

    “David Cameron restated his position: that he’s instinctively against statutory regulation”

    So is Leveson. He recommended independent regulation backed up with a statutory power to enforce fines imposed by the independent regulators, didn’t he?

    • Hugh

      No he recommended a regulatory body ultimately overseen by Ofcom, whose head is appointed by ministers, and the remit of which goes well beyond enforcing fines.

  • Sarah

    “The British press is almost comically incapable of colluding over anything”

    Except their privileged status. Except that.

  • Sarah

    “In which other country in the world does the consumer have a dozen papers to choose from when they walk into a newsagent?”

    I’m not sure any other countries in the world suffer from a surfeit of PPE and English graduates do they? What else are people with no vocational qualifications and a desire to go into politics and have an obituary in the Times without the commuting/dealing with the public thing going to do while they’re waiting for a book deal, apart from natter?

  • Sarah

    “this is not an industry that is used to collaboration”

    Well apart from that incestuous nepotism thing.

    And that self-regarding thing.

    Oh and that wall of silence at the Leveson enquiry thing.

    Ah and that propaganda about hacked off thing.

    Oh and that resistance to regulation thing.

  • Sarah

    “There was something odd about the idea of a bunch of journalists keeping something secret”

    Well apart from that phone hacking thing.

    Oh and that police bribing thing.

    Oh and that MP corrupting thing.

  • David Lindsay

    Where and why has the Godfather picture gone?

    • Steven Efstathiou

      Was this column once graced by photo of Rupert ‘Humble Pie’ Murdoch?

      • David Lindsay

        In his case, the godfather is Tony Blair.

        • Steven Efstathiou

          Now he seems to have turned into tomorrow’s fish’n’chips wrappers.

          • David Lindsay

            After today’s meet, someone sleeps with the fishes.

            But who?

  • acorn

    Fraser – enjoyed this. But it may help the position to define what you personally understand as Press in the first place. Is it just paper copy? Is it including tabloid and broadsheet (anachronistic I know). Is there a threshold quality line for ‘press’ and how would you define that? Perhaps this exists and is agreed somewhere – but where. And once/if it is, then it may be a start point for the defence.
    Of course politicians and victims only want the coverage they want. The best solution in my book to help these people think about press suppression is to stop reporting anything on them now. Just black them all out for a week – could the press agree on that at least. Sort out the ‘les gens, c’est moi’ for a bit?

  • Rhoda Klapp

    Really I don’t much care whether a bunch of editors can ‘agree’ on something. It ought not to be in their hands. What we need, and what we may not end up with no matter what the statutory/voluntary arrangements, is access for members of the public (and stuff the celebs) to swift judgment and restitution when they are abused by the press in any way precedented or novel. It has to be fast, it has to be fair and it has to be independent of the editors. This is not endangering anybody’s freedom. It is not the press being strangled. It is the public having some redress against the power of the press. It is the necessary and sufficient outcome.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Unfortunately the Leveson report envisages the “public” to include single issue pressure groups who will be able to “complain” in order to shut down anything they don’t like to publicise or further their agendas. Political Correctness will do the rest as we have seen with politicians who no longer dare speak frankly for fear of incurring the wrath of these groups and the usual orchestrated “outrage” mob that will follow. The clue is in the “Hacked Off” campaign itself.

      The minority will be able to dictate to the majority and it won’t just be members of the public seeking redress for abuse but axe grinders determined to control what people can write or read about issues they “own”.

      • David Lindsay

        “who will be able to “complain” in order to shut down anything they don’t like to publicise or further their agendas”


        • Colonel Mustard

          Unfortunately it is not rubbish at all. You should read the report which has made recommendations for regulation that allows third parties to make complaints; and allows for thematic investigations as well as those on individual cases.

          • David Lindsay

            They will be able to complain all they liked. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be able to stop anything.

            Like now, in fact.

            • Colonel Mustard

              And it doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t be able to stop anything. Simply because Leveson’s recommendations will put pressure on any future regulator to find in favour of any complaint (in line with equalities legislation) and therefore cross the line from redress for victims to censorship for agendas.

              • David Lindsay

                But again, what does that change?

  • Austin Barry

    The press is dying and Leveson administers the last rites assisted by the absurd acolytes Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan – and I’m sure that if Jimmy Savile had survived he would be waving the Hacked Off placard.

    Meanwhile, the Internet, mad and robust, is the vanguard.

    • David Lindsay

      The print media are alive and well, and may they ever remain so. Anti- blogging hacks and anti-newspaper bloggers should both shut up, because neither of them has anything interesting to say. The Internet joins print, the radio that was supposed to kill off print, and the television that was supposed to kill off radio. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

      Or 53 flowers, anyway. That is the number of print newspapers and magazines listed as members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, which is one of several existing forms of State licensing. How many of those 53 were invited to this sit-down? How many of the newspapers registered as such with the Post Office were invited?

  • C Cole

    I think the Spectator’s Rod Liddle would be splendid as ‘union rep’…

  • David Lindsay

    You seem to be getting the message, then.

    Those who have waited 20 years in order to avenge the 1992 General Election result and everything that followed from it, not least the rise of Tony Blair, will not now be denied that vengeance by any power on earth. They massively predominate within one party, and they are still far more numerous than most people realised within the other party.

    Or would you rather be given what you profess to want? The end of the distribution arrangements with the Post Office. And the abolition of the Lobby, so that you would all just have to watch BBC Parliament like everyone else. That is what independence of the State would mean.

    • Rhoda Klapp

      Google translate does not help in this case. what the hell is he going on about?

      • David Lindsay

        It obviously wasn’t written for you, luv.

        Fraser Nelson understands it, though. Kinnock’s Revenge is now unstoppable, and it is also the unstoppable revenge of everyone who had thought that they would quickly be rid of John Major. The light bulb has come on.

        • Rhoda Klapp

          You ought to find out who you are writing for and where they hang out. It evidently is not here. Then you can go there and amaze them all with your obscurity and your verbosity. I am sure they will appreciate it.

          Fans of DLs writing need only click the down arrow to prove how wrong and vindictive I am with this post. Or not.

          • David Lindsay

            If you can’t understand it, then leave it to people who can instead of moaning about your own lack of erudition. What am I supposed to do about that?

            Give it up, you silly cow.

            • Austin Barry

              No, to be fair, Rhoda Klepp has a point.

              Your writing does recall mellow intervals at Stanford when some right-on student was ranting in arcane and obscure verbosity about this, that or the other, his eyes fuelled with hashish certainty.

              And the rest of us would admire the concave curve of a sophomore’s upper breast or watch the Bay area rain bead the window glass.

              • David Lindsay

                There’s nothing right on about me.

        • Sarah


          • David Lindsay

            Yes, duckie. Luv.

  • david denton

    They have had 17 months to prepare for this so if the can’t agree and collaborate now they deserve to be regulated by statute

  • IanH

    Fraser, it was not loathing of each other that exposed the phone hacking. All of you were aware of the Motormouth investigation so knew that several of you were up to your ankles. The sad thing is that the Murdoch papers have been singled out, when they were least bad of a bad bunch. As for the victims, the McCanns should have done the decent thing and paid for a child minder, and the Dowlers should have a clue about how voice mail messages work, which you can see the husband does in the enquiry as he grimaces when his wife relates the story

    • Fraser Nelson

      The Guardian exposed it, a reminder that Britain has one of the least collusive newspaper industries in the world.

      • David Lindsay

        Well, you certainly all had the look of the funeral in The Godfather on the news today.

        • Austin Barry

          Well, they looked befuddled.

          Prefects called to the Headmaster’s study. Amazed at their own importance, but concerned that the Head is worried that the School Mag. is rather more robust than he would like.

          “Could you rein it in a bit, chaps?” he says, his hamster eyes anticipating resentful resistance.

          To which the answer, accompanied by a two figured salute, should be ‘No’.

          • David Lindsay

            How fascinating, to see the real Cabinet entering and leaving Downing Street for a change.

            Or perhaps not, after all.

            They were in for less than an hour, and no one has contradicted Cameron’s BBC interview in which he said that he laid down the law, with every threat of doing so literally.

            Interviewed themselves on the way out, they were resigned to the fact that whatever they proposed was subject to parliamentary approval. They have lost, they know it, and they are saying it openly.

            This is a great day for parliamentary sovereignty.

            • Austin Barry

              One does worry that Fraser and chums would defer to the languid self-importance of Cameron. Hopefully not, but they are, I suppose, after all just oiks.

              • David Lindsay

                There was a distinct “Who is the Prime Minister here?” feel to it all. I do not like the fact that David Cameron is the Prime Minister. But he is. None of them is.

    • George_Arseborne

      Oh!!!!Here comes Milliband flogging Cameron again. Unfortunately Rebekka is not available to receive a text. Lol

  • Fergus Pickering

    I agree with everything you say, Fraser, the only Scotsman I would trust farther than I could throw him.

    • Austin Barry

      Well, apart from Ronnie Corbett.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Yes. that is true.

        • Wessex Man

          Can’t you throw David Lindsay somewhere?

          • Austin Barry

            I have a horrible feeling that Lindsay has boomerang qualities.

  • RKing

    Those in favour a word of caution…..

    “Be careful what you wish for”

  • MaxSceptic

    I nominate you, Fraser.

    And then you can give the Sherman pledge (“I will not accept if nominated…”) – and tell the government to go forth and procreate.

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