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Press Regulation: Where now after phone hacking verdicts?

The Murdoch titles did their best to divert attention from the guilty verdict on Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor and former Cameron aide, in the phone hacking trial. It was buried on page seven of The Sun, and The Times splashed with the acquittal of the other NotW former editor, Rebekah Brooks. Presumably the titles wanted to minimise the embarrassment to their ultimate boss, News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch.

But this coyness was misguided. If there are questions of corporate responsibility by the ultimate owner of the NotW, the aquittals will not deflect the police inquiries. And in terms of press regulation, the News Corp editors might have been better advised to make the most of the conviction of Coulson.

First, it embarrasses the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who hired the disgraced editor even after he had resigned from NotW. Questions about Cameron’s judgment are now the story, not the judgment of Rupert Murdoch. This was underlined by the extraordinary censure of Mr Cameron by the judge in the phone hacking trial who said the Prime Minister had nearly caused the case to collapse by his over-hasty intervention after the Coulson verdict.

But the Coulson conviction also confirms it was the lack of will to prosecute, not the lack of press regulation, that caused the phone hacking scandal. These activities were already illegal and, if some police officers had not been so cosy with the reporters, Lord Leveson might never have been called in to conduct his inquiry because this illegal practice would have been stamped out long before The Guardian exposed the Milly Dowler phone hack. This doesn’t mean that the present state of press regulation is acceptable; it isn’t. But it underlines the dangers of putting politicians, however indirectly, in charge of any new system of regulation.

The principal lesson from this whole affair is how dangerous it is for the country and for politics when senior politicians sell their souls to spin doctors. Tony Blair’s alliance with the explosive Alastair Campbell was a disaster for all concerned as the country was spun into war in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that only existed in dodgy dossiers. Gordon Brown was seriously damaged by his championing of Damian McBride, a vicious infighter who eventually resigned after sending damaging emails about political rivals.

Now Mr Cameron stands accused of “letting a criminal into Number 10” by enlisting Coulson into his inner circle with only the most cursory checks on his background and character. The UK civil service somehow abandoned its normally rigorous vetting procedures to smooth Coulson’s passage into the heart of government. This beggars belief. Coulson had, after all, just resigned as editor of the NotW over misconduct under his watch. Mr Cameron was repeatedly warned by the press and politicians, including Nick Clegg, that Coulson was bad news. But so desperate was Mr Cameron for his unique skills that he waived the rules.

Labour leader Ed Miliband tried to get into a lather of righteous indignation over this at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday. But Labour are hardly in a position to criticise politicians for sucking up to the press. Rupert Murdoch was practically a member of Tony Blair’s Cabinet, according to his former spin doctor, Lance Price. So obsessed are politicians with winning favour that they are prepared to sell their integrity for a fistful of Sun editorials. It emerged from the Leveson hearings that even the First Minister, Alex Salmond, was so desperate to get into The Sun’s good books that he not only took tea with Rupert Murdoch but also offered to lobby the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on his behalf.

Politicians will in future sup with the press with a very long spoon. Or will they? Politicians are their own worst enemies and, with the 2015 General Election in their nostrils, the jostling has begun between politicians trying to bring sections of the press on side. This is curious because the UK press is not the force it used to be in the days when The Sun was able to claim, after the 1992 General Election that “It’s The Sun wot won it”. That wasn’t true then and it isn’t true today, now that the circulations of all the newspapers are in decline and voters are increasingly getting their political intelligence from social media and other internet sources, including online newspaper editions.

Of course, newspapers still generate most of the stories that circulate on the internet. But, crucially, the context and control of stories has slipped through their fingers. Newspapers are finding it increasingly difficult to make the kind of impact they used to with screaming headlines. They perhaps don’t make the political weather to the same extent. It was declining print sales and their impact that made some newspapers resort to phone hacking and the use of private detectives to get stories about celebrities and non-celebrities. That brought in Lord Leveson and his report on press standards.

He called for a new system of self-regulation underpinned by statute: an independent body ultimately regulated by a government-appointed committee. The press responded by setting up their own independent body, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), chaired by a judge and ultimately regulated by an industry-appointed committee. No-one is particularly happy with this arrangement, but the Government appears to have given up on trying to impose Lord Leveson’s “statutory back stop”, much to the annoyance of pressure groups such as Hacked Off and the Media Standards Trust, which says that IPSO is the Press Complaints Commission given a lick of paint.

That remains to be seen. What is indisputable following the phone hacking case is that the Leveson inquiry was founded on a fallacy: that it was the lack of regulation that led to the spread of illegal practices. Most of the offences examined by Lord Leveson (hacking, the approaches to JK Rowling’s children, the harassment of Sienna Millar, the theft of royal address books and so on) were already covered by existing laws.

This does not mean the press is blameless or that the old system of regulation was adequate. Clearly it was not. Elements of the press have been arrogant and unwilling to bend when they got stories wrong. They failed consistently to make proper corrections and apologies. They allowed press photographers, within the law, to behave in a way that was intrusive and unacceptable. They preyed on the weak and deferred to the strong. It is to be hoped some lessons have been learned.

The law has run its course. Coulson has been found guilty and faces prison. He was certainly not alone, and there are others in the tabloid world who must be feeling a tightening of their collars. For, at least now, the law is being enforced and press standards will improve as a result, even as the power of the printed press is challenged.

About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.


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