SubScribe: Parliament, Hacked Off and 'self-regulation' of the Press Google+

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Parliament, Hacked Off and 'self-regulation' of the Press


Maria Miller dodging the bullets in the Commons yesterday. Photograph: PA

My doctor says I'm too fat and that I should change my habits. She's probably right.

Searching for ideas on how to make me mend my ways, she calls in a hospital consultant who knows nothing about metabolism, weight loss or anything remotely relevant. He puts forward some ideas. I don't like them.

Then the doctor has a chat with a slimming club, a health spa and a model agency and together they cook up a regime that they want my whole family to adopt. They don't involve me in the conversation. Nor do they take into account the fact that my husband is the perfect weight and my children are, if anything, a bit on the thin side.

We are presented with a diet sheet and exercise regime. The doctor then retreats and says it is up to us to get on with it. We must all follow the diet and if we eat an illicit bath bun or drink what some third party believes is too much wine, someone else will punish us.

This, it seems, is a system of self-regulation.

Over the next three days the three party leaders will have a huddle and on Friday they will publish their 'final' ideas on how to rein in the Press. If the Press accepts them, these ideas will go to the Privy Council at the end of the month and be enshrined in a royal charter.

If the Press doesn't accept them, a regime dreamt up by anti-Press campaigners, a handful of MPs and a remote-control Prime Minister over pizza in the middle of the night - without a newspaper editor in sight - will be put to the Privy Council instead.

This, it seems, would be a system of self-regulation.

Newspapers and their publishers did, in fact, accept that the Press Complaints Commission was defunct and submitted their own thoughts on the way forward, but MPs didn't agree, so they junked it.

This, it seems, is how you set up a system of self-regulation.

We know that it is self-regulation because Maria Miller, the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary, told MPs so a dozen times during the hour the Commons devoted to the issue yesterday. An hour that saw a succession of Labour MPs stand up and tell the minister to get on with it and a succession of Tories stand up and express doubts about whether it should go ahead at all.

For 300 years Britain has had a free Press. Now it is to be the subject of controls laid down by Parliament via a royal charter. The proposals have been greeted with horror all over the world. Britain, that valiant upholder of free speech, is about to impose constraints on newspapers that  can't be trusted to behave themselves.

Newspapers naturally have to obey the law and, to emphasise the point, a number of individuals are about to come before the courts charged with criminal offences alleged to have taken place during the hacking scandal that started this whole ball rolling. But the criminal law isn't sufficient.

Newspapers also have to abide by restrictions on what they can report. These go beyond those imposed on MPs in Parliament and lawyers in court. They cannot publish malicious lies about people or harass them. But the civil laws designed to protect victims of such treatment are not sufficient.

And so a special set of shackles is being prepared for the Press, a set of shackles that will embrace one-man-and-his-dog local papers, but not the BBC, ITV or the internet.

This, it seems, is self-regulation.

It's such a serious matter that the Secretary of State went to the Commons to make a statement on her plans yesterday. So serious that 30 or 40 of our 650 MPs turned out to listen. They did not include Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg, who shared  KitKats with the Hacked Off brigade in the Leader of the Opposition's office in March.

There was no Ed Balls, no Yvette Cooper, no Theresa May, no George Osborne or William Hague - who obviously had more important things to do than hang around the Commons chamber after delivering his statement on Syria.

There wasn't even a Michael Gove or Damian Green, both of them former journalists. We did, however, have Ben Bradshaw, the former BBC journalist who is now a Labour MP, and John Whittingdale, the Conservative who had the misfortune to be the last man to oversee the PCC.

Almost everyone present rose to speak. Labour MPs  (with the exception of Kate Hoey and Gerald Kaufmann) were anxious that there should be no further delay in clicking the padlock. Tories were generally more concerned that there were to be any chains at all. Odd this, given the chamber's 'unanimous' approval of the proposed charter in March.

Ms Miller countered arguments about delay by insisting that the past six months had not been wasted. Scotland had to be taken into account - though she seemed somewhat bemused when Unionist and SDLP MPs stood up to say 'what about Northern Ireland?'  Local papers had real concerns that had to be addressed. It was better to take time and get it right, she said.

There was also a stock answer to questions about protecting Press freedom: we should rejoice in a robust and free Press that held Parliament to account, she said. And if the newspapers refused to accept it? Well then the Hacked Off version in which the newspapers had no say would be imposed.

This, it seems, would be a system of self-regulation.

Nobody likes to think of people in times of personal trouble having their lives made more miserable by callous journalists. There should be a mechanism to protect them, especially those without the resources to fight their corner in the courts. The Press Council and the Press Complaints Commission both had inadequate constitutions and neither was sufficiently robust. Their days are rightly over.

Nor is it a valid argument to say that Britain has the Press it wants -  though if you look beyond the tabs to the proliferation of magazines with Kelly Brook and Victoria Beckham on the covers, it does appear that the appetite for celeb gossip is insatiable.

It sticks in the craw when people who have previously courted the media try to dictate what newspapers should be allowed to print once they dare to deviate from the 'what a good chap/lovely lady' script. But there is a strong public feeling that newspapers should behave better and that a new watchdog is required.

There is an equally strong feeling that Parliament should have no part in deciding which breed.

One of the more surreal moments in yesterday's Commons sitting was to hear Labour MPs demand that the likes of the McCanns and the Dowlers be consulted on any proposed changes to the pizza charter. However much you sympathise with those families - and it would be a hard heart that didn't - they had their say via the Hacked Off contingent in Miliband's office six months ago.

It's time Hacked Off backed off. We don't need a regime imposed by them, by Parliament, by the Privy Council or by anybody else.

We need a system of self-regulation.








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