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Beware of a BBC Fleet Street

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 18.22.45Everyone agrees that politicians shouldn't control the press - even politicians, in public at least.  So at first glance it is hard to see what the difference is between a bill to underpin press regulation, which could be amended by politicians in Parliament, and a Royal Charter to underpin press regulation, which could be changed by politicians who sit on the Privy Council.  Hacked Off wants the first.  The press wants the second.  Since the difference is one of degree, one might assume that Oliver Letwin, the in-house negotiator between the two Coalition partners, will be able to broker a deal that will suit both of them - and Labour too, come to that.

As one peers at its hazy outline, the details swim into view.  A new body would exist to which complaints could be made.  It would not be dominated by Editors or journalists (indeed, their presence would be minimal).  Media outlets would not be compelled to report to this body, but would be vulnerable to big damages in court if they did not: it would, in any event, have the power to levy fines of up to £1 million.  Apologies would require agreement between parties about wording and placement - so papers that had made substantial errors on the front page wouldn't be able to bury a non-apologetic apology on page 94.

This deal, in combination with the Defamation Bill currently before Parliament, poses questions.  Some are about specifics: for example, how is this plan compatible with the growth of new media, some of which is based in other legal jurisdictions?  Some are about principle - such as, how can it be right for the press to be made vulnerable to control from politicians, when Britain is already, as Nick Cohen points out, "falling down the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index".  The brutal answer to the last enquiry is that the press has little room for manoevre, having been driven by Leveson into a corner - a consequence of its own errors and (let's be frank) crimes.

Fleet Street thus has no alternative but to concede outsiders in pole position on the new quango, big fines and more prominent apologies - all of which is consistent with Letwin's Royal Charter plan.  But Letwin and David Cameron also seem to have an eye to the politics of all this, as well as the principles involved (plus the detail).  In simple terms, three groups of people have a special interest in press regulation.  First, the victims of abuse, such as the McCanns,  relatives of the Hillsborough victims and the 7/7 dead, Christopher Jeffries (who I defended at the time of his mistreatment on this site).  Second, celebrities.  And third, Hacked Off and its fellow-travellers.

The Letwin proposal offers a path to justice, or at least redress, for the first group.  It would be going a bit far to say to the second, like Rhett Butler to Scarlett O'Hara, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," but that, for better or worse, is my instinct.  However, it is the third group that Downing Street and the Conservative Party must keep a specially watchful eye on.  Parts of the left see the future of Britain's media through the prism of a struggle between Rupert Murdoch and the BBC.  (Never forget: 73 per cent of us get most news from television, and the BBC supplies 70 per cent of television news.)

Other parts have an even more strategic view.  They want to turn Fleet Street into what you might call a BBC press. The BBC itself shouldn't be Conservative (capital C) and should be biased - towards the high Reithan vision that inspired the Latin words still inscribed above the entrance of Broadcasting House.  (An English translation of the first part reads: "This Temple of the Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God").  It is not, in my view, biased towards Labour.  But the nature of its funding - by the license fee payer on compulsion - shapes its worldview, which tends to drift to the liberal left.

Whether the subjects is "cuts", religion, global warming, tax, America, abortion, same-sex marriage, welfare, immigration and (to some degree) the Middle East, this drift is there, more often than not.  Worse, there is often a lack of critical understanding and interest in different views.  We don't always agree on this site with our fellow travellers in Fleet Street, which is partly why we ran the Wrong Right series.  But the demotic, noisy, campaigning right-of-centre broadsheets and tabloids are the voice of a big constituency in Britain, and help to keep political balance across broadcasting, print and the net.

Bits of the left would like that voice to be silenced.  And few more effective means of doing it can be imagined than what Toby Young yesterday described as "one of Leveson's most pernicious recommendations, namely, that the new independent regulator should be 'granted the power' to hear complaints from 'a representative group affected by the alleged breach, or a third party seeking to ensure accuracy of published information' ".  Young is absolutely right in his description of how this mechanism will be used, if implemented, to silence journalists who want to take what we might call the non-BBC view of immigration, religion, welfare, same-sex marriage - and so on.

This proposal for third party complaints is not simply a Leveson proposal.  It is likely to be taken up, according to Young's piece, as part of Letwin's package.  (The Press Complaints Commission may already deal with such complaints, but the plan is on an altogether different scale.) On balance, his Royal Charter idea is better than a Commons bill, though I can't see why either Labour of the Liberal Democrats would want, for their own selfish reasons, to sign up to it, especially while the Eastleigh by-election is on.  But it should not contain a third party complaint system.

If there is a justified complaint against a paper, justice should be done, by means of the legal system or the new body. However, third parties - for which read: lobbies which often represent no-one but themselves - should not be allowed to poke their nose in.  While Tory MPs are musing on whether the Lords was right to tack an arbitration body on to the defamation bill (which it wasn't), they should also turn their minds to this proposed complaints system. They may not like the right-wing press, sometimes with good reason.  But they should ask themselves whether they would like a BBC Fleet Street any more - and whether it would be in the public interest.


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