Leveson's Board of the Great and the Good would be bad for local press, too
Peter Cuthbertson says Leveson's proposals would be great news for corrupt, overspending, underperforming councils
Many thoughtful conservatives will be instinctively wary of Lord Leveson’s call for a new “independent Board [appointed] without any influence from industry or Government” to decide and enforce the Code for newspapers. The pressures of market forces and democratic legitimacy prevent organisations straying too far to the left. By contrast, organisations isolated from either, and governed by the Great and the Good of establishment opinion, can and do drift with prevailing elite opinion.
Depending on who sits on this Board, one can imagine a range of long-standing left-liberal fantasies entering the Code over time. They could prevent exposes of celebrity misbehaviour while maintaining that exposing social conservative ‘hypocrites’ is nonetheless in the public interest.
Newspapers could be in trouble for ‘misleading the public’ if they report that the gender pay gap is partly down to different life choices, or if they report sceptically on climate change science.That old Lib Dem favourite about banning airbrushed images could be revived. And really, who is helped by tabloid ‘sensationalism’ and ‘populism’ on street crime or asylum numbers? Let’s have less of that in future! The Board will be empowered to “examine issues on its own initiative” even when not a single complaint has been initiated – newspapers subscribed to the Code will be required to cooperate.
These measures will affect all newspapers, but they could be particularly onerous for local press, aiming to hold councils to account.
Leveson’s proposals today include stringent financial penalties. Newspapers that refuse to abide by the Code and his new Board would be denied their right to recover their legal costs when sued unsuccessfully. Newspapers’ legal bills could therefore pile up even as case after case is thrown out by the courts. Those newspapers that do sign up can be fined up to £1 million by the Board for breaches of the Code – and a forced apology or correction imposed. As I set out on Tuesday, the nationals - unlike local newspapers - at least tend to have top lawyers on retainer and deeper pockets to absorb the shock of such legal costs and fines. Local press will be hardest hit if they stray too far. More likely, they will be the most cowered and unambitious in their reporting.
That’s great for underperforming, overspending and corrupt local councils – and bad for the rest of us.