I’m a liberal and I’m against this sort of thing. Leveson-style press regulation, that is (as well as secret courts)

Leveson report front pageI’ve got used to describing myself as “a liberal first, a Lib Dem second”. Most of the time the Venn diagram works out pretty well. But not the last couple of weeks.

First, there was ‘secret courts’ and the decision by Nick Clegg, backed by most Lib Dem MPs (though not by party members), to extend legal proceedings which directly conflict with natural justice and that elevate the state above the individual.

And now there’s Nick Clegg’s decision, again likely to be backed by most Lib Dem MPs (and this time probably with the support of the party membership), to support a Royal Charter which extends the reach of the state over freedom of speech.

There are many Lib Dems who’ll protest at me linking the two, who’ll argue that for them the common thread is standing up for the powerless: whether that’s an individual wrongfully tortured by the state looking for justice, or an individual whose life is made hell by the press wanting redress.

I understand that perspective. But as I said when Leveson was first debated in the Commons:

Two principles are crucial to me in framing my thinking on this issue:

1) The state should not have power over the press.
2) The press should not have power over individual citizens.

You could call those two principles a level playing field approach. Or even more simply: equality.

That’s why I support independent regulation of the press — something that is, in any case, in the press’s own interests if they want to rescue their dire trust ratings — but not any form of state-backed oversight.

That’s why I cannot support a Royal Charter: one step removed from statutory underpinning, but still an invitation for future political interference in a freely operating press, as the pro-Leveson Lord Fowler has highlighted:

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.”

On Monday, our MPs will vote in parliament on how the press should be regulated. That statement worries me as a liberal. We Lib Dems support the UK’s continuing membership of the European Court of Human Rights not least to encourage other nations to become or continue as signatories and to live up to its standards. What message do we think it sends out internationally for our politicians to be debating how to constrain the press that holds them to account?

There are of course good things within the legislation, notably the provision for a quick, low-cost arbitration process for legal claims which will enable individuals to challenge press excess, and also the way in which it has forced independent regulation on a reluctant press. Its downsides include the (legally dodgy-sounding) proposal for exemplary damages for publishers not signing up ‘voluntarily’ to be governed by the independent regulator.

In truth, though, I’m not as exercised by this post-Leveson imbroglio as I am by ‘secret courts’ — and not just because the press has brought this on itself.

These Leveson-style proposals could have worked in the 1980s when supply of news was controlled by a handful of dominant proprietors. I don’t see how they’re going to work in a raucous Internet age. Politicians can try and shut the door, but most of the horses are already roaming free and utterly uninterested in returning to the stable.

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

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  • jenny barnes 17th Mar '13 - 9:22am

    How does it happen that the “libdem” MPs can vote against the government on Leveson, but not on secret courts?

  • Paul in Twickenham 17th Mar '13 - 9:33am

    I recently posted what looked like a throwaway comment on one of the threads about secret courts: “Areopagitica and Leveson anyone?”.

    The tradition for presidents of the Liberal Party to receive a copy of Areopagitica – a defence of freedom of the press – suggests that it should be anathema for Liberals to vote for Leveson-style regulation.

    But someone recently started a thread on Mill and surely the Harm Principle offers a defence for a degree of regulation in cases where the only “public interest” is of the prurient variety and where there is clear evidence of unwarranted harm being done to someone for the sake of a quick headline. The press has repeatedly proven itself incapable of self-regulation in this respect and erm… “something must be done”.

    I spend a lot of time at UCL and often walk past a cabinet containing a momento mori in the form of the mortal remains of Jeremy Bentham. Did Bentham’s idea of utilitarianism really encompass the idea of maximizing happiness by defending water-cooler conversations along the lines of “Cor! Did yer see the headline in yesterday’s Sun?”. I think not.

    As for the tricky task of differentiating “good” press intrusion from “bad” press intrusion, I’m afraid I’ll have to leave that to the philosphers. I believe Wittgenstein said something that can be paraphrased as “I’ll know it when I see it”.

  • If we actually had a free press, I might agree with you.

    But at the moment all we have is a cartel of wealthy (often overseas) individuals who enjoy wide exemptions from UK privacy, defamation and electoral law which they have been exploiting to hack phones for secrets they can publish to help distribute party political literature on behalf of whichever politicians they can blackmail into doing what they want – currently the Tories and UKIP.

  • “The state should not have power over the press” (Stephen’s key principle) can be read in a range of ways. Does it for example imply that there should be no legal (i.e. state) control over what is published? Clearly no-one argues for this. The issue is what are the APPROPRIATE legal (state) constraints on mass media and how do we preserve the virtues of a free press given appropriate constraints. To talk of ‘state control’ is often a way of putting any good Brit of anything but its worth attempting a paraphase .

  • Peter Andrews 17th Mar '13 - 10:36am

    I am a Liberal and I am in favour of this sort of thing. I believe that one persons liberty should not adversely affect anothers,. In this case the right of the press to print what they like infringes on other liberty to enjoy a private life.

    The Government has been in directly regulating TV for years and IMHO TV news is much better for it as they are forced to present the news in a balanced way.

    I do not see why the printed press is thought of as something which ought to have no rules applied to it at all including thinking they are above the law while it is fine for TV to be regulated.

    I think the Lib/Lab proposals are eminently sensible and do still leave the press with relative freedom whilst giving a much better chance of them reigning in their own worst excesses and giving a proper complaint procedure with actual teeth for those who are affected by unacceptable press practices.

    I think it highly likely that if we put the regulator in place backed by the Lib/Lab version of the Royal Charter that we will actually end up with a much better standard of journalism for our print media

  • Two thoughts:

    (1) For me the crucial question is to what extent participation in the scheme is really voluntary. If it’s genuinely voluntary, then obviously there can be no objection. Stephen refers to the proposal that courts should be able to award exemplary damages in cases where the publisher is not a participant, which I’m not particularly comfortable with. On the other hand, if I understand correctly, courts can already award exemplary damages in libel cases, and what is being proposed is an extension of that principle to privacy cases. Whether or not that’s desirable, I’m not sure it’s really a fundamental change in the way that’s being suggested.

    It’s been reported that Labour actually favours provision for exemplary damages whether the publisher participates or not. I haven’t seen anything to indicate where the Lib Dems stand on this.

    The other thing I am uncomfortable about is some of Leveson’s suggestions about costs – going so far as to say that in some cases, even if a publisher won the case, it might have to cover not only its own costs, but the costs of the unsuccessful claimant. That seems unfair. Again, I have no idea where the Lib Dems stand on this.

    (2) From what I’ve seen, it’s not clear why these proposals wouldn’t cover online publishers, even down to the humble blogger. That wasn’t my impression of Leveson’s proposals.

  • Richard Dean 17th Mar '13 - 10:45am

    Is there a difference between a regulator and a censor?

  • “Is there a difference between a regulator and a censor?”

    If one thing is clear about these proposals, it’s that the regulator will have no power at all to prevent anything being published in the first place (in the way that can currently be done by injunction).

  • Andrew Suffield 17th Mar '13 - 10:56am

    Is there a difference between a regulator and a censor?

    Yes. A censor prevents you from printing something. A regulator lets you print it, but arranges for there to be consequences if you do certain things.

  • Andrew Suffield 17th Mar '13 - 11:00am

    Actually, I shall expand on that with what I consider to be the liberal form of press regulation:

    1. You should be able to print anything
    2. You should not profit from printing anything that harms others

    This leads us to a system of regulation where misbehaviour is punished with a fine roughly equal to the profit gained.

  • Yes Richard.

  • Richard Dean 17th Mar '13 - 11:05am

    Andrew, Under those two principles, there is no adverse consequence of breaking the rules, since “you” neither gain nor lose from doing so. Would such a system be effective, and is there a single measure of “profit”?

  • Richard Dean 17th Mar '13 - 11:16am

    Stephen Tall is correct that the issues of press freedom and secret courts have something in common. They both involve conflict between the fundamental principles of freedom, fairness, and openness.

    Press regulation obviously restricts freedom to publish, and maybe if the Regulator has ultimate power then that’s rather close to a shackled press. This is presumably done for “fairness”, but might it allow politicians to hide misdeeds?

    Secret courts obviously restrict freedom to observe, and maybe if the court has ultimate power then that’s a step towards a police state. And this is done to achieve fairness in the sense of allowing the government to defend itself.

  • @ Jenny

    “How does it happen that the “libdem” MPs can vote against the government on Leveson, but not on secret courts?”

    Excessive loyalty to Nick?
    Excessive emphasis put on reports (Browne Report, anyone) over political principle and judgement?

    I’m sure there are lots of other reasons out there, all with a grain of truth in them.

  • “How does it happen that the “libdem” MPs can vote against the government on Leveson, but not on secret courts?”

    The simple answer is that they are not going to be voting against the government, because there is no government policy on this, because the coalition parties have not been able to agree a policy.

    The question to ask is why the Lib Dem leadership agreed to the policy on secret courts in the first place.

  • @Stephen, I am sorry, but I just lost a lot of respect for you, in fact, I probably lost just as much respect for you posting this, as I lost for Nick Clegg after I received his defense of secret courts. While I am sure you care about my opinion as little as you do any other random poster’s opinion, I still feel the need to explain that I am not so much disappointed with your opinion, as I am with your decision to cynically use Nick’s misjudgment on the secret courts as a way to undermine this vital move forward in the protection of peoples’ right not to be defamed or have their privacy violated; yes in my mind, their piracy has not just been invaded, it was violated in a vile manner. Thus, right now, I see your comments here in the same light as I saw those who used the negative feelings towards Nick as a way to undermine the AV referendum. (Interesting how most of those people were press bluffs.)

    My opinion on this issue is this; people, with a vested interest to do so, throw the term ‘freedom of the press’ about a lot. There is, in my opinion, no such thing as an unqualified freedom, whether the restrictions are something as uncontrollable as being physically incapable of doing it, or they are as ill-defined as simply having to be ‘responsible’, restrictions to freedom will always exist.

    As liberals, we should be the most aware of the undeniable truth that there are things one simply cannot do because we are acting to maximise peoples’ freedoms. We are looking to ensure that people have the best (note best is different to most) possible freedom they can. IE As a Social Liberal, I am very happy to restrict the way businesses act and take some of their vast profits in order to help the poorer members of society have more social mobility. Why? Simply because I believe that this creates the best possible freedom for society.

    So, why does this link to the ‘freedom of the press’? Well, first, what is the press? In my opinion, it is a set of organised news groups that, generally for profit, find and distribute news.

    Next question then, what constitutes ‘News’? I believe that ‘news’ is the publication and distribution of information and peoples’ opinions on that information; often done with the expressed purpose of making a profit. ‘News’ is not the spreading of ‘lies’, ‘misinformation’ and ‘hate’. Something I believe Mills agreed with when he said, protecting freedom of speech is about protecting the right to challenge the status quo and put forward new beliefs and ideas. He openly stated that freedom of speech does not extend to purposefully inciting harm, violence and slander (libel).

    Where does this leave us? Back at the question, what does the term ‘freedom of the press’ mean? In my opinion, it means the right to put forward; information; opinions; beliefs; theories; and ideas (and make a profit from this) without restriction. This right remains unrestricted unless one or more of the aforementioned is going to knowingly cause harm, incite violence or be proven to be lies, libels, slander, or misinformation. In my opinion, this point is nothing new, and in theory our laws already support this position. The problem therefore is not the restriction of the freedom of the press because that already exists. The problem is that currently these powers are de facto unenforceable as peoples’ access to justice in this area is simply too weak. This Charter therefore, is not about restricting the press any further than it already is restricted, it is actually about expanding peoples’ freedom to access justice.

    And this how we supporters of this reform need to start putting it forward, we need to stop looking at this as a negative form of restriction and start looking at it as a positive expansion of freedom. We need to explain that we are giving people the freedom to live without fear of their privacy and other rights (freedoms) being violated by giving them the freedom to access justice. In my opinion, anyone who stands against this reform is against liberty and freedom, and is only supporting the freedoms of the strongest minority over the rights and freedoms of the people.

  • Andrew Suffield 17th Mar '13 - 12:28pm

    Under those two principles, there is no adverse consequence of breaking the rules, since “you” neither gain nor lose from doing so. Would such a system be effective, and is there a single measure of “profit”?

    Yes, it would be effective. The system as it exists today is that there is considerable profit in breaking the rules, hence all major media outlets break the rules all the time. If we eliminate that then the commercial media will have to seek out other sources of profit, which would necessary have to be ones that follow the rules. Meanwhile, non-commercial media are free to do whatever they see fit with only their reputations at stake – and it is this very property which makes it a fundamentally liberal approach.

  • Richard Dean 17th Mar '13 - 12:35pm

    Today, I sell an extra million newspapers with my publication of hacked phone conversations between the Politician and the Madam. At £1 profit per copy, I’m smiling all the way to the bank.

    Tomorrow, I get fined the profit I made, £1 million. Oh well, easy come, easy go.

    Next week, next month, and next year, my circulation’s up a million. Readers are expecting publication of another juicy hacked phone conversation anytime soon. At £1 per copy per day, I’m laughing all the way to the bank.

  • I was much heartened by the fact that the Savile and Rennard allegations were revealed by TV broadcasters – thus proving that a regulator does not ‘shackle’ investigative journalists.

  • Tichard Dean

    Aaah, the ‘free’ press

    And who are these these paragons of virtue – a French Tax Exile (Harmsworth), a pornographer (Desmond), a couple of oddballs (Barclays) and an Australian-American megalomaniac (Murdoch). All rich, all right-wing and all with an agenda

    The rest of the press don’t seem to be so vociferously against some statutory underpinning if done correctly

    If these press barons had been able to control themselves and maintain some independent regulation we wouldn’t be talking about this. The equivalent of what you talk about as being the ‘free’ press – the old newsletters etc only exist on the internet now and not in the written or broadcast media where the power of money has taken over.

    Just look at the character assassination carried out of those who don’t meet the desires of the press (Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, Kinnock) – not to mention hacking.

    Good, investigative journalism will have nothing to fear from proper regulation

  • Richard Dean 17th Mar '13 - 12:53pm

    There is a regulator already?

  • Richard Dean 17th Mar '13 - 12:55pm

    I wonder why a misspelt version of my name appears at the top of bcombie’s comment? 🙂 Oh well, fame, but not fortune yet, at least until I get my new scurrilous rag off the ground!

  • Apologies Richard but if you look at a key board the ‘R’ is next to the ‘T’ and there is no edit button

  • Richard Dean 17th Mar '13 - 1:05pm

    The English language is SO flexible, isn’t it? I wonder why my name should be there at all?

  • Speaking as a journalist by training, freedom of the press is of course essential, but the vital investigative functions of one is not affected by the Lib/Lab Royal Charter. I would bitterly oppose any plans which would stop stories like the Rennard allegations, MPs expsense etc being made public or any form of state liscencing.

    A politically neutral broadcast media alongside a free and objective print media is the right balance in a liberal democracy.

    That being said, freedom from the press is the real issue here. As far as I can tell from reading all sides of the debates and the two proposed Royal Charters it seems the case that the press would face concequences if, in the case of the Dowlers, a publication invades the liberty of the private citizens and cause untold harm and upset with an independent authority deciding whether they had crossed a line.

    This sounds like to me, as the annoying expression goes, a regulator with real-teeth that warns the press from printing stories without real validity (You may glean from my language that I’m not a lawyer, so please forgive some inprecise terminology). Yes, the issue of validity is difficult to judge but I would rather face it than not.

    Protecting people from such distress protects their liberty, As Nick talked about when the report was published the party is Liberal and not libetarian. We should stand against vested interests to protect freedoms , as such we shouldalways support a free press that uncovers and exposes wrongdoing but also ensure that innocent private citizens cannot have their lives and liberty invaded by an powerful sector without just public cause.

    This is an incredibly complex issue with no perfect answer, and I fully accept there are problems to my own argument, but protecting the liberty of private citizens seems more Liberal than protecting the a press that can do as it pleases with people largely powerless against them.

    As such, the Lib/Lab Royal Charter seems to me to be a necessary balancing of liberty between the press and people.

  • Richard Church 17th Mar '13 - 1:17pm

    Liberals believe there is a role for the state in protecting the powerless from the powerful. Isn’t that what a royal charter is all about? Liberals resist monopolies, and support regulation and equalities legislation for the same reason. We support the state regulation of advertising to ensure people are not cheated and lied to, what is proposed for the printed media is a much softer regulation than that.

    Our media are already regulated. The BBC has its charter, and independent TV and radio is regulated to prevent political bias. Would Stephen prefer Fox News?

    Philosphically what is being proposed is entirely Liberal.

  • Richard Dean

    It was a reply to your post on ‘Press Freedom’ – never knew you were so sensitive

  • Simon McGrath 17th Mar '13 - 1:34pm
  • Eddie Sammon 17th Mar '13 - 1:35pm

    I don’t see why most other powerful industries should be regulated and the press not. The press have irritated me for years with their unfair abusing, misleading and manipulating of the public. However I am also aware how regulation often punishes the law abiding majority due to the failures of the few, therefore I would be in favour of moving towards an economy where the individual perpetrators are regulated more heavily than the rest; perhaps for x number of years which would also act as a deterrent.

  • Simon McGrath

    No he doesn’t

  • Andrew Suffield 17th Mar '13 - 1:38pm

    Next week, next month, and next year, my circulation’s up a million

    That’s why fines are determined by regulators and judges, not by an equation. It’s even straightforward to determine the correct level of the fines: you keep increasing them until the newspaper stops doing this.

  • The world over there is a customer-produced incentive for certain sections of the press to produce flashy, sensationalistic, and frankly bizarre “news” stories. In countries where defamation laws are somewhat less strict than they are in the UK, the press have an easy way to generate those stories: they simply make them up, with such lurid details as their imaginations can come up with. Such stories are easily discounted, as they appear on the same pages with stories about UFOs and werewolves and have headlines like “Duchess of C________ to have alien baby.”

    In this country, however, the laws create an incentive for the sensationalist press to find some scrap of fact, no matter how small, to justify their headlines. Therefore they become extraordinarily intrusive: using spying, eavesdropping, theft, and so forth to get “dirt” on their targets. Since they occasionally come across real “scandals” by these means, the line between a reliable press and a sensational press is obscured.

    Let me suggest that if the defamation laws were liberalised to place more of an onus on the plaintiff to demonstrate that a press statement is untrue, harmful to his or her reputation, and malicious, there would be (a) an explosion of sensational but highly inaccurate stories about public figures and (b) a much greater understanding that the vehicles for these stories were trash, good for nothing but amusement. There would be no longer any incentive to engage in phone-tapping and the like, because the press organs using such techniques would be losing eyes to even cheaper rags writing about public figures’ escapades on nonexistent islands, their fictional mistresses and imaginary out-of-wedlock children: millions of readers obtained at no danger or cost. The lowest is the enemy of the low.

  • Richard Dean 17th Mar '13 - 1:49pm

    Fines are to be determined arbitrarily then, by a rule that is asserted by unfettered regulators or judges and neither codified nor disputable? Very liberal – not! Will an accountant be hired to assess “profit”, or will it be an arbitrary guess? Will fines relate to achieved profits, or to estimated future profits?

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 17th Mar '13 - 3:06pm

    “1) The state should not have power over the press.”

    One of Leveson’s key proposals was that the freedom of the press should be guarnateed in law. The only other legal moves he proposed were to give legal status to the “recognition body” which validates the independent self-regulation body or bodies, plus a system of incentives for joining such a body or bodies.

    To characterise those proposals as some form of state control of the press is ridiculous.

  • Andrew Suffield 17th Mar '13 - 4:40pm

    Fines are to be determined arbitrarily then, by a rule that is asserted by unfettered regulators or judges and neither codified nor disputable?

    That is a reasonably accurate – if slightly crazy – description of how the civil courts work. Except for all the parts where it isn’t.

  • Tony Greaves 17th Mar '13 - 6:15pm

    “How does it happen that the “libdem” MPs can vote against the government on Leveson, but not on secret courts?”

    (1) There will not be a vote for or against “the government” tomorrow. The Government as such does not have a view. The PM is not the government., just part of it representing one of the government parties, The DPM is the other part, represeting the other government party. Any vote will be a vote of Parliament for or against proposals put to it from various quarters.

    (2) The original Stephen Tall piece is wrong for two reasons:

    1 – Liberals should be against the untrammelled exercise of corporate power over individuals. It does not matter whether than corporate power is the state, the government, or a private corporate force. The idea that News International and one of us are equals as persons and citizens is nonsense.

    2 – He confuses the role of Government and Parliament. A major task of Parliament should be to stand up for the rights of citizens against corporate power, whether of the government or of “private” corporate power, on behalf of the citizens who elect it.

    Tony Greaves

  • “I find it shocking that some alleged liberals would rather defend the privilege of powerful newspaper proprietors [etc]”

    On the whole I don’t think the current proposals are too unreasonable (though some of the details leave me a bit uneasy).

    But I find it shocking that the arguments being advanced in support of them are generally so simplistic and emotive. The freedom of the press is something liberals (alleged or otherwise) should be extremely concerned about, and it’s quite right that these proposals should be examined and discussed very carefully, rather than surfed into on a wave of righteous indignation. People shouldn’t be attacking Stephen Tall (and others) for expressing misgivings.

    The central problem is that it really is quite difficult to regulate the obvious excesses without leaving legitimate investigative journalism vulnerable to obstruction by the regulatory apparatus. If people don’t acknowledge that such a problem exists, I believe it demonstrates that they haven’t thought things through carefully enough.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Mar '13 - 9:38pm

    There are practical difficulties though George, for instance, should bloggers have to sign up to this new regulator? As I said earlier, I think they need to come up with a way that doesn’t punish the ethical majority. We shouldn’t regulate everyone just to kick the press barons in the teeth, that’s what fines are for.

  • Eddie, is a blogger publishing, distributing and making a profit from news? No, so he would, of course, not have to sign up to this.

    People who bring up bloggers are clearly trying to distort this debate in much the same way that the Newspapers are.

  • Eddie Sammon 17th Mar '13 - 10:20pm

    Liberal Al, I’m not trying to distort anything (why would I?). What is the difference between a blogger going to a conference, reporting on it and selling advertising space on their website, compared to online newspapers, which do the same?

  • Richard Dean 17th Mar '13 - 10:28pm

    Would a newspaper that made a loss be fined? Would it be compensated instead? What if it simply broke even without making any profit? Could it get away with it like that?

    Bloggers who include advertising on their website would be making money from that advertising.

    So could LDV be punished if it published against the regulator’s code of practice? Could it be punished if it allowed comments that went against the code?

  • Stephen Donnelly 17th Mar '13 - 10:45pm

    @Richard Church ; That sums up my view perfectly.

    There is perhaps a difference between theory and practice. In theory I understand the difficulties that some genuine liberals are having with these proposals. But in practice the press is owned and dominated by the rich and powerful, and uses this power to protect their interests and to trample on individual freedom. It is legitimate for the state to intervene in this case to protect individual freedom.

    However there are some details of the current proposals that I think we should re-examine, particularly the wide power potentially given to the regulator to allow complaints to be initiated by third parties. This could easily become a way that a majority, or a powerful minority seeks to impose their view and to restrict freedom of comment. Could ( not should) the Danish cartoons be published in the UK if this is part of the Royal Charter ?

    On the whole this is a matter that needed further discussion, and I just hope that Cameron, through weakness, will not do damage by brining this to a premature conclusion.

  • “People who bring up bloggers are clearly trying to distort this debate in much the same way that the Newspapers are.”

    Steady on a bit and look at what the draft charter actually says.

    (1) “relevant publisher” means a person (other than a broadcaster) who publishes in
    the United Kingdom:
    a. a newspaper or magazine containing news-related material, or
    b. a website containing news-related material (whether or not
    related to a newspaper or magazine);

    (2) a person “publishes in the United Kingdom” if the publication takes place in the
    United Kingdom or is targeted primarily at an audience in the United Kingdom;

    (3) “news-related material” means:
    i. news or information about current affairs;
    ii. opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs; or
    iii. gossip about celebrities, other public figures or other persons in the news.

    If someone publishes a website containing opinion about news or current affairs, and they are in the UK or aiming primarily at a UK audience, they would be subject to these proposals. Obviously LDV would be. The only reason I can think of why individual bloggers wouldn’t be, is if there is a legal technicality concerning the meaning of “publish”, which would leave someone other than the blogger responsible. I’d be very doubtful about that, though.

  • Chris – I come back to my earlier point that the existence of OfCom has not prevented broadcasters such as Channel 4 digging up Rennard or ITV digging up Savile – so it clearly does not prevent investigative journalism but does encourage responsible journalism.

  • Richard Dean 17th Mar '13 - 11:52pm

    If Ofcom is successful, why not simply copy it for printed and online matter? What is so different about these forms of publishing? Why would we need a separate Royal Charter?

  • Fiona White 18th Mar '13 - 8:15am

    The BBC is regulated by a Royal Charter backed by legislation. They have frequently challenged “the great and the good”, including governments of different persuasions, and the Charter has not prevented them from doing so. The press in this country has promised time after time to self-regulate more effectively and has always failed to do so. They behave for a short period and then go back to their bad old ways. Of course we must have a free press but if they can’t regulate their own behaviour so that if they behave badly they take the consequences, then legislation is the only way to deal with it.

    There have been comments about the impact on local press organisations but many local newspapers are now owned by one of the big press corporations.

  • it does concern me that few people have picked up on the clauses Chris highlights.

  • Tom Richards 18th Mar '13 - 9:39am

    The privy council can’t just (of its own accord) go and change the royal charter – they have veto powers over any changes, but they can’t propose any of them. If they want to change it they need a two thirds majority in both houses – which is the same as is required to change constitutions in a lot of countries (and is pretty tough to achieve).

  • Hereford Cow 18th Mar '13 - 10:38am

    I wonder if many readers realise that Focus leaflets would, potentially, fall within the scope of the Leveson law? They are providing news – or purport to – and are regularly published by what the code describes as a “relevant publisher.”

    Doesn’t it strike you as fairly serious that political discourse should be moderated and controlled in this way?

    On a broader note, the whole point of a free press is that it is free to be unfair. This is true of all rights: rights give people a choice. You can’t then insist they can only use that right to do what you wish them to do (Labour and Tories have never grasped this – but it’s sad when Liberals can’t grasp it either).

  • Hereford Cow 18th Mar '13 - 11:00am

    Incidentally, in case you had any doubt, the wording makes it clear that news includes political “comment” e.g. all normal political activity:

    (3) “news-related material” means:
    i. news or information about current affairs;
    ii. opinion about matters relating to the news or current affairs; or

    I do wish Liberals would wake up to the nightmare we’re walking into here. Thin end of the wedge…. looks more like the thick end to me.

  • @Hereford Cow – In a years’ time when the free press hasnt collapsed because of this modest and reasonable move will you be back here to admit you were wrong? I doubt it.

  • Hereford Cow 18th Mar '13 - 11:22am

    @MBoy – Hi, that’s called playing the man not the ball, isn’t it?

    Rights and freedoms exist as a thin – perilously thin – skin over a multitude of other human impulses. The desire to take revenge, the desire to control, and so on, and so on. Allow small cracks and you weaken the whole structure. The Leveson Charter proposal – secret courts – police taking acting because twitter jokes cause “offense” under the Public Order Act – I could go on – step by smallish step you’ll find that pasting an ad hominem response on a website like this lands you, not with a polite argued response like this, but a fine or a stretch in jail.

  • A bit more food for thought, for those who think there are easy and obvious solutions to these problems:

  • @Stephen – “2) The press should not have power over individual citizens.”

    The reality is the press does have power over individual citizens since it can make and un-make reputations at the drop of a hat. Sometimes this may be well deserved but it it also clear it is abused on occasion.

    As such, there is an onus on law-makers to ensure that such power – as with another power in society – is not easily or readily abused. “Damages” paid out – in retrospect – do not go far enough as that – the current system – clearly shows.

    Hence, there is a need for regulation. The aims of such regulation though should be debated carefully. The “reasonable expectation” of a member of the public should be: a) accurate reporting of facts – not active misrepresentation as seems to be the tendency in some papers , b) “fair” debate – some effort at giving opposing (outside) commentators the chance to set out their respective cases on the measures of the day and c) “commentary” by resident columnists that – in total by the newspaper – consists of something more than a chorus of rants in favour of one side/party/faction in a debate.

    Arguably with the current press situation, journalists face a situation where holding opposing views to their proprietor/editor on a topic is likely to prove severely career limiting so they need to engage in “self-censorship”. How “free” is the press in that situation?

  • ““fair” debate – some effort at giving opposing (outside) commentators the chance to set out their respective cases on the measures of the day”

    I’m amazed at some of the suggestions that are being made.

    Telling people they could express their opinions only in what a regulator considered to be a “fair” way would be a huge threat to freedom of speech. In fact it would destroy freedom of speech.

    Should a regulator be able to tell LDV that its coverage of current affairs was “unfair” because its articles nearly always supported the Lib Dems – and require it to publish articles attacking the Lib Dems? That would be monstrous.

  • I see there are some suggestions now that individual Twitter users could be caught by the wording of the royal charter. I find it difficult to see how they could be described as publishers of websites, though.

  • I’ve heard several of the so-called press barons defend their practices down the years as more democratic and more legitimate than political parties because they depend on daily sales rather than a vote once every few years. Indeed, the demise of the News of the World perfectly proves this point.

    Leveson and this debate is therefore unnecessary, as we already have laws which can be applied to the press.

    The libel laws are widely abused and must be reformed to prevent access to redress, while ROPA can and should be adjusted to allow for its extension to cover commercial media… it certainly doesn’t unfairly restrict freedom of speech within the party political debate!

    A Royal Charter is a nothing but sop to public opinion to give an air of credibility to the plans for a regulator who can never be fully independent.

    Will the main headline on p1 of a newspaper ever be an apology? Will newspaper reviewers ever sit down to review the self-abasement of the self-promoters, or forcibly shut-down publications?

    I’ll believe it when I see it – apparently an apology is only ever news when it’s a LibDem giving it.

    Ed Miliband supported the Iraq War, David Cameron’s finger prints are on Black Wednesday – we won’t forget them.

  • I wrote:
    “For me the crucial question is to what extent participation in the scheme is really voluntary.

    The other thing I am uncomfortable about is some of Leveson’s suggestions about costs – going so far as to say that in some cases, even if a publisher won the case, it might have to cover not only its own costs, but the costs of the unsuccessful claimant. That seems unfair. Again, I have no idea where the Lib Dems stand on this.”

    Apparently this was approved by the Commons without a division.

    So – if I understand correctly – for non-participating publishers the presumption will be that they pay the costs of anyone taking civil action against them, regardless of the result of the action. I can’t understand how that can be justified. The effect is that publishers can be penalised for staying outside the system even when they have done nothing wrong at all – and the penalty of having to pay the costs of all comers could be a very heavy one for a small publisher. That means the system really isn’t going to be voluntary at all.

    Again, a much more important substantive issue than all the drivel we’ve been fed about statutory versus non-statutory. I only hope this can be challenged on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights.

  • Michael Parsons 20th Mar '13 - 9:24am

    Perhaps the Royal Charter etc should best be seen as the First Act of the Revenge of the Floating Duck House? How anyone can imagine that a bunch of tax-pocketing cronies witha long history of resisting all openness about their merry pranks are going to light up the far horizon with the Flame of Truth beats me.

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