U.K. party leaders playing politics with press rules

by Tina Burrett

Most people like talking about themselves, including those in the press. Since publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report into press culture, practices and ethics at the end of last month, Britain’s newspapers have been consumed with discussing their own future. From among the many recommendations contained in Leveson’s almost 2,000-page report, attention has focused on the judge’s call for “statutory underpinning” of any new self-regulatory regime replacing the existing Press Complaints Commission.

There is much confusion around what is meant by statutory underpinning. The term suggests something created by legislation, but independent of Parliament. For instance, a statute could be introduced creating a body to ensure that a new self-regulator meets standards of conduct set down by law. In other words, Parliament would legislate to create a regulator to regulate the self-regulator. In theory, this Kafkaesque proposal would preserve the independence of the press, by keep government one degree removed from the regulatory process. But many in the press have expressed fear that statutory underpinning could be a slippery slope leading to statutory state control.

It is unsurprising that those whose practices are called into question in the Leveson report oppose its recommendations for stronger regulation backed by legislation. But press misgivings are shared by Prime Minister David Cameron, who has declared “serious concerns” over Leveson’s call for regulation backed by statute. Cameron has suggested that it would set a dangerous precedent to “write elements of press regulation into the law of the land”, warning that legislation would create “a vehicle for politicians to impose further obligations and restrictions” on the press in the future. Although the prime minister’s concerns about regulatory creep are doubtless sincere, his stated reasons for opposing Leveson’s plans for a new statutory regime may obscure more Machiavellian motives.

Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry in July 2011 after it was revealed that employees at the News of the World had hacked the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. The subsequent police investigation into phone-hacking at the tabloid led to the arrest of two former editors with close connections to Cameron. It is a source of ongoing embarrassment to the prime minister that his friend Rebekah Brooks and former communications director Andy Coulson both now face criminal charges relating to phone hacking. Focusing on the sections of Leveson’s report dealing with press regulation distracts attention from another important aspect of the judge’s inquiry, namely the cozy relationship between senior press executives and politicians.

Furthermore, with his party languishing in the opinion polls, Cameron can ill-afford to lose the support of Britain’s pro-Conservative newspapers, whose editors uniformly oppose Leveson’s recommendations for statutory-backed regulation. Editors of the traditional Tory press are already lukewarm in their enthusiasm for Cameron, whom they blame for failing to achieve a Conservative majority in the 2010 general election. Cameron’s refusal to offer a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union is another bone of contention with the Euro-skeptic Tory press. Cameron’s vulnerability on Europe was underlined by Tory voters’ defection to the UK Independence Party at by-elections held in Rotherham, Croydon and Middlesbrough on the day Leveson published his report.

Cameron’s Conservatives at least achieved better by-elections results than their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems — whose leader Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg supports Leveson’s plans for statutory-backed press regulation — came a humiliating eighth in Rotherham. More naturally in tune with Labour than the Conservatives, many Lib Dems voters have been aghast at their party leaders’ support for the Cameron-led coalition’s austerity program. Championing Leveson’s proposals for statutory-backed press regulation allows Clegg to put some much-needed distance between himself and the Tories without endangering the future of the coalition. Although the subject of much media and parliamentary discussion, press regulation is a minor issue on which the coalition can afford to disagree.

Like Nick Clegg, Labour leader Ed Miliband supports making Leveson’s proposals law. This position puts Miliband on the side of the 79 percent of British voters who are in favor of an independent press regulator established by statute. Miliband hopes to portray Labour as defenders of the victims of press intrusion, in contrast to a Conservative prime minister protecting his powerful friends in the media establishment. In so doing, Miliband risks setting himself up against the press. But in the runup to the next election, it is unlikely that the majority of British newspapers would support Labour anyway.

If Leveson’s proposals are enacted, the outcome will neither be the destruction of press freedom the newspapers predict nor the well-behaved press that victims want and deserve. The key question of any new regulatory regime must be whether it can make a positive difference to media culture and practices.

Leveson only addresses some of the issues confronting the British media. It fails to consider how to identify who should be regulated in an age when anyone with an Internet connection can publish to the world. Applying regulation only to the mainstream media makes no sense. Bloggers and tweeters can be just as powerful and damaging to reputations as the press can be.

If newspapers won’t supply us with a diet of gossip and paparazzi photos, then the Web will. As long as there is demand for gutter journalism, there will be a supply. Ultimately, we get the media we deserve.

Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of International Relations at Temple University, Japan.