Maria Miller, the Telegraph and Leveson: how statutory regulation begins & how the press is bringing it on itself

Now I’m more than a little sceptical about Leveson: I think he’s firing the wrong bullet (regulation backed by statute) at a target that’s moving out of range (the ‘dead tree press’). However, I’m also deeply sceptical about the press’s ability to report facts straight.

Which leaves me a bit conflicted at this morning’s report: The minister and a warning to the Telegraph before expenses story.

On the one hand, you have a clear signal of the danger of letting politicians anywhere near having a say in how the press should be (self-)regulated, with culture secretary Maria Miller’s special advisor Joanna Hindley issuing a clear warning to Telegraph journalists to watch what they print:

“Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment. So I am just going to kind of flag up that connection for you to think about.”

And so it begins… This is how state regulation of the press would work in Britain: not through official statute, but through unofficial back-channel whispers. This is why Leveson’s/Hacked Off’s campaign for a ‘dab of statute’ has always missed the point of a free press: the belief that you can ‘underpin’ without undermining is deeply flawed.

However, it’s also not hard to see why Leveson and Hacked Off have ended up where they are, with the Telegraph inadvertently revealing its rather flexible attitude to fact-checking — it was, the paper confesses, only after the intervention by Maria Miller’s adviser,

The news group decided to delay publication in order to ensure the facts were correct.

How tedious! Imagine having to check what you’re about to print is accurate before printing a million copies of your paper! It’s political correctness gone mad!

In fact, it turns out that ‘having carried out further checks’, the newspaper was reassured ‘the story was accurate and decided to publish the article at the first opportunity’. Which is kind of the process I’d have hoped they might have gone down from the start…

And of course when it comes to slack fact-checking of MPs’ expenses the paper has form, having smeared Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson (among others) when publishing its exposé of some MPs’ abuses of the system.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from May 2007 to Jan 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • In this case the government have something to hang over the press – the threat of robust, independent regulation. It’s hard to see what leverage they would have once that’s implemented. There would be no scope for further legislation and no political involvement in self-regulation.

    In a way, Stephen, the best option for reducing politicians’ bargaining power would be to implement Leveson as soon as possible. The worst thing would be for the Coalition or Labour to hold this over the press as something that could be done in a year or two, or post-2015.

  • Daniel Henry 12th Dec '12 - 11:36am

    Hacked off are calling for an independent regulator with objective standards rather than regulation through ministerial whims, so i can’t agree with “this is how press regulation would work”

    Fingers crossed that it will lead to more of this fact checking though! :)

  • “In a way, Stephen, the best option for reducing politicians’ bargaining power would be to implement Leveson as soon as possible.”

    But how do you do that, when all the political parties appear to have rejected (or at least not accepted) Leveson’s preferred option for validating the new ‘self-regulation’ body – validation by Ofcom?

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 12th Dec '12 - 1:43pm

    Leveson proposed that there is a responsibility placed on the government, by law, to guarantee the free press. That seems to have been forgotten.

  • Tony Dawson 12th Dec '12 - 4:24pm

    I do not read the Telegraph’s ‘renewed fact-checking’ in the same way as Stephen Tall does.

    The newspaper was being ‘shaken down by this pumped up puffed up SPAd who had obviously watched one too many episodes of ‘The Thick of it’. They decided ‘what the hell, we’ll double-check, and tell the jumped up little so and so this, too, so Maria Miller has ABSOLUTELY no sob story to tell that nice (sic) Mr Cameron. And they checked again. And the facts were still the facts.

    In my view, the Commission of oversight should be established and monitored by someone appointed by the judiciary, not the executive or any of its quangos.

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