Bob Satchwell: A free Press must be out of politicians’ grasp

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UNLESS there is a last ditch outbreak of common sense today, the weary public are in for another bout of baffling conflict between Parliament and campaigners for controls on the Press on one side and newspapers on the other.

After more than two years of the phone hacking saga, the Leveson inquiry into the behaviour of the Press, the row between leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband and the Daily Mail, and this week’s wrangling about mysterious Royal Charter proposals, you the public are entitled to be confused.

Equally newspapers like this one, and the whole of the country’s national regional and local newspapers, are understandably worried.

Before we can try to lift the veil on some rather complicated differences on the detail, we need to remind ourselves of the essential background to the row.

First, the UK has a vibrant, vociferous Press that is admired and emulated across the world. It is often raucous and frequently controversial but other countries wish they had newspapers like ours, holding politicians, other authorities from the National Health Service to bosses of the sporting world, and even other newspapers, to account.

Here, people too often take for granted the freedom of the Press to question, criticise and entertain. Elsewhere they wish they had it so good.

That means while you may sympathise with those who want to curb the papers, people abroad – and not just editors and journalists – look on horrified that anyone is even considering interfering with the Press.

The saga started with revelations about a tiny number of investigators from the now defunct News of the World, who listened to the voice mails of celebrities and others in the news.

Their behaviour, and further revelations heard by the subsequent inquiry led by Lord Justice Leveson, horrified journalists as much as they disturbed the public.

The conclusions of the inquiry bore little resemblance to the customs and practices of the vast majority of national and especially the country’s 1,100 local and regional newspapers, like this one.

Lord Justice Leveson recognised that but such was the political furore whipped up by campaigners who used the sad and sometimes sordid experiences of victims of over-zealous intrusion, that all newspapers are threatened with burdensome new regulation that they do not need – and certainly don’t deserve.

The learned judge recommended a new more robust and powerful system of regulation, including fines of up to £1 million and enhanced safeguards for the public.

But crucially he emphasised that any new system must be effective and acceptable to the newspaper industry. He insisted it must not interfere with the papers’ rights to investigate, interpret facts, inform the public and comment without interference.

He recognised the importance of the freedom of the Press which should not be inhibited. He concluded that the best solution was an improved regulator set up and run by the industry itself. Yesterday he repeated to members of a House of Commons committee that a new system had to work for the public – and for the Press itself.

Lord Leveson told senior MPs that he hoped party leaders who came up with their version of a new system backed by a Royal Charter in the spring would reach an 11th-hour accommodation.

Both sides accept the need for a tougher new complaints and regulatory body. The key difference is that the politicians want to give Parliament the ability to amend the system so long as they can get a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament if they think the new system does not work.

The Press is concerned that will open the door to political interference and control in the future. Rows between government or Parliament and newspapers are inevitable and indeed necessary. The next time it would be all too easy to take a fateful step to get rid of the pesky Press once and for all.

Top lawyers who are not necessarily friends of the Press have warned that such a measure would fall foul of the Human Rights Act introduced by the last Labour government and the European Convention on Human Rights. That could lead to further lengthy and expensive legal wrangles.

Royal Charters are usually granted to organisations that ask for them, yet the government has threatened to impose its own version on newspapers. Experts say that is unheard of.

The new body being developed by the Press will, once established, be independent of control by newspapers.

It will embody all of Leveson’s key recommendations without inhibiting journalists.

There are other special concerns about the costs of the new system for regional newspapers and local papers battered by economics and the growing influence of the internet.

But they are surely not incapable of solution so long as politicians mean what they say when they claim they want to protect the public and ensure the 300-year-old rights of a free unfettered Press.