You know how hard I find it to be overly nice about Tories, but I must salute the indefatigable Norman Fowler for his attempt to make sure the government does not wriggle out of doing the right thing on press regulation.
While David Cameron has acted only when he has had no choice, and at every tactical turn hoped the issue would quietly go away, Fowler and a few other Tories have acted out of a principled view that something wrong in British life needs to be put right, and political leaders have to be part of doing so.
There is something sinister and slightly disturbing about the way the debate on the Leveson proposals has gone quiet. Just as the press sought to control the terms of debate before and during the inquiry, not least with oodles of dishonest reporting, they are seeking to do so now by keeping quiet publicly and trying to do deals with Cameron and Oliver Letwin privately. Letwin is the poor soul who has been tasked to find a political fix to the ‘principle’ Cameron discovered post Leveson that statute was not an option. As Fowler points out, he would be far better just going with Leveson.
If this was any other issue on the government’s agenda, it would be the subject of never ending debate, accusations of dither and division. But because it is about the media seeking to maintain and pursue their own interests, it has gone quiet.
So Norman Fowler’s article in The Guardian today is a welcome one. I publish it below. Meanwhile, given the reports about the huge rise in measles, surely it is time for the health select committee to call before it the editors who, along with Dr Andrew Wakefield, were most responsible. It’s time Dacre had another public outing.
Here is Lord Fowler’s piece…
For weeks Lord Justice Leveson and anyone who has had the temerity to support his moderate report on the British press have been subjected to a barrage of newspaper abuse. It has been one of the most disreputable campaigns seen in this country for a long time – made even worse as it has all been done in the name of press freedom.
Even before Leveson had reported, the distortions began. In November the Daily Telegraph carried an advertisement with photographs of the likes of Assad, Mugabe, Castro and Putin. It was headlined “These people believe in state control of the press. Do you?”, with the injunction: “Say no to state regulation of the press”.
Only a lunatic would compare Leveson with Assad, but this has not stopped the campaign. Any allegation will do. Only a few days ago, a leader in the Sun said that a Leveson law would “muzzle the press” and “silence newspapers” – and, commenting on the Chris Huhne case, charged that “many at Westminster want papers stopped from investigating scandals like this”.
As Harry Evans, a journalistic giant, said in a strangely under-reported recent speech, the misrepresentation of Leveson’s main proposal is staggering. In truth, he said, the plan was for the regulation of the press organised by the press but with a statutory process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness were provided.
This proposal was rejected far too quickly by David Cameron, and next week we are due to see his alternative. At its heart will be a royal charter – an idea dreamt up by Oliver Letwin at the Cabinet Office when the more sensible Leveson course had been closed to him. The trouble is that a royal charter is an antiquated and undemocratic process – and, to be fair, there has never been any pretence that it is otherwise.
The privy council’s guidance is quite clear. “Once incorporated by royal charter, a body surrenders significant aspects of control of its internal affairs to the privy council … This effectively means a significant degree of government regulation of the affairs of the body.”
To understand the full disadvantage of this route, we should go back to the debate on the BBC royal charter nine years ago. The Labour government proposed that the management of the BBC should be divided into an executive with non-executive directors, and a trust where the chairman could call himself chairman of the BBC as an honorary title .
The proposal was met with a hail of criticism, but it is the structure that unhappily we have now. The reason for that is the government did not require the approval of parliament or anybody else – it was a deal between the government and the BBC made possible by the royal charter .
The final irony of the Letwin plan is that – in spite of all the fine words about how unacceptable it is to have statutory intervention – it looks as though the royal charter will require legislation to enable it to work. How else can the new system of damages and costs be introduced?
The tragedy is that Leveson produced a carefully argued report after months of open investigation. The Letwin proposal has not been remotely subject to that process. The debate on it has been behind closed doors, and a news blackout has been imposed in direct contravention of Leveson’s plea for greater transparency. The fear is that we will end up with a system which is bad for the public and bad for newspapers. If I were a Sun leader writer, I would be tempted to say that it is little more than government regulation backed by statute .