In a move that would be unthinkable to most Americans, politicians in Britain are on the brink of introducing statutory regulation of the press in a bid to curb what they see as the excesses of the nation’s newspapers. Those behind the proposals are taking advantage of the lack of explicit free speech or press freedom protections in the UK’s piecemeal constitution, which is partly written and partly based on convention. At the end of the day, what Parliament says, goes. Liberals in the U.S. would kill for a similar arrangement.
The politicians have rejected the newspaper industry’s own plans to beef up its current system of self-regulation. And while they insist the press has nothing to fear from their proposals, newspapers argue that, once the principle of state regulation has been established, future governments could abuse it. Under the proposals, the regulator would have the power to demand prominent corrections and apologies from publishers and impose £1million fines. Newspaper publishers that refuse to submit to the regulator’s fines and rulings could face punitive damages in the courts, and could be made to pay the full costs of court cases even if they win.
The push for state regulation began in 2011, following a public inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal, in which reporters and private investigators working for the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid The News of the World accessed the voicemail of celebrities, politicians and members of the royal family, among others, over several years. The NoW was eventually closed down after it emerged that investigators had hacked the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who was abducted in 2002 and was later found murdered.
The inquiry recommended the establishment of a new regulatory body to replace the industry-run Press Complaints Commission. While the industry would ostensibly continue to be self-regulated, the regulator’s powers to levy fines and costs would be “underpinned” by legislation. Seizing on the chance to muzzle a press that’s predominantly right-of-centre, particularly at the tabloid end of the market, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives’ center-left coalition partners, campaigned for the full implementation of the proposals. They were supported by Hacked Off, a group of left-wing academics and activists, establishment figures, and celebrities who’ve been the victims of press intrusion.
However, this isn’t a straightforward left versus right issue. MPs of all parties are keen to exact revenge on a newspaper industry with whom they’ve endured a stormy relationship, not least during the 2009 expenses scandal, when the Daily Telegraph and other papers published details of how politicians were fraudulently claiming allowances for everything from accommodation and travel to floating duck islands, leading to criminal charges against several MPs, and a wave of demotions.
Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron initially rejected any notion of state regulation as “fundamentally wrong in principle.” While pledging to implement the inquiry’s proposals as long as they were not “bonkers,” he warned that passing legislation to establish a new regulator could pave the way for politicians to impose stricter controls in the future.
After several months of stalemate, a cross-party deal was agreed on in March. To the consternation of the newspaper industry, the deal was done in the House of Commons office of Labour leader Ed Miliband, at a meeting attended by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and representatives of Hacked Off. No one from the newspaper industry was present and Cameron didn’t attend, instead sending along a senior aide who found himself outnumbered and outgunned.
The proposed new regulator will be set up by royal charter, an archaic instrument issued by the sitting monarch, which is used to incorporate a body as a legal entity, and set out its rights and powers. The charter will therefore be granted by Queen Elizabeth rather than the government. This is thought to be the first time that a monarch has been asked to sign a charter imposing a system of regulation on an unwilling industry, and the charter could be amended by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament, creating an opportunity for further political interference.