Oh Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay! they chortled in their joy! The political class seems intoxicated with having finally, excruciatingly, achieved cross-party consensus on regulating the press.
Everyone, it appears, is a winner. Dave has gambled – with losing a vote in the House of Commons, and implicit in it a momentous amount of face – and won a few, paltry concessions on statutory regulation that can only be appreciated in their full complexity by a nit-picking lawyer. Ed, jubilant, with parliamentary plaudits ringing in his ears, has got what he always claimed he wanted: a Royal Charter backed by statutory regulation. And Nick’s just happy to be on the winning side (whichever that is, exactly).
But, rather like the Cypriot banking crisis rumbling in the background, parliamentary accord in principle may be only the first, relatively easy, step in what promises to be an agonisingly long process.
Amid universal self-congratulation within the first three estates, what has been forgotten is the most important issue of all: the assent of the fourth. An eerie silence has settled over the land as the press barons – the mighty Murdochs, Rothermeres and Barclays – weigh up their options.
This is not the endgame they had in mind at all. The merest hint of statutory sacrament is abhorrent. And their objections to it are by no means groundless. Being men of the world, none expected to get away with a light slap on the wrist this time round (in other words, the moribund Press Complaints Commission being given a new set of falsies). What they have been served up, however, is enough to cause apoplexy.
Granted, the new press council will be self-regulatory in a manner of speaking: for instance, editors will still play a principal role in drawing up their own code of conduct. But the fact that this code is to be enshrined in law (however statute-lite) means – horror of horrors – the Street of Shame will for the very first time have to abide by it.
And there is worse. Newspapers are being expected to pay for this new regulatory body with their own hard-earned (and declining) advertising and circulation revenues. Yet they will be able to exercise no veto over those sitting in judgement upon them.
Now what is the point of self-regulation if you can’t game the system?
All sorts of humiliations beckon. For a start, there will be front-page retractions of a size and proportion equivalent to the original trumped-up story; in other words, no more “See page 94, bottom para, far right”. And then, if the press recuses? “Arbitrary” fines whose eye-watering size might actually get noticed by shareholders, and hit the owners where it really hurts – in the bank account.
Luckily, there are a few time-honoured principles that can be trundled out to muddy the waters, promote dissension and avert the awful day of reckoning. A very good one is our old friend Juvenal’s Quis custodiet custodes ipsos? – which might be loosely translated as: who will watch over the watchdog itself? A question that near two thousand years of repeated interrogation has failed to satisfactorily answer.
Juvenal’s oblique point, as far as I can make out, was that the powerful invariably stuff organs of governance with officials who are like-minded, obligated, compromised or compliant – leading to all manner of corruption and tyranny. A fine contemporary example would be the PCC, the illustrious members of whose committee quite recently included Tina Weaver – former editor of the Sunday People – who is now helping police with their inquiries into phone-hacking.
However much fog surrounds the future workings of the new press regulatory body, one thing is beacon-clear: the regulator will no longer be guided by the wisdom of serving newspaper editors with an axe to grind. But if not editors, then who? That is the question. Friends of politicians? The Good and the Wise from the upper house? Well-meaning but naive members of the judiciary, like Brian Hutton who was walked all over by the Blair government? Former senior civil servants who, like most lawyers, are instinctively inimicable to the whole concept of “unauthorised” leaks of information into the public domain? The publicly-wronged but narrowly-focused, like the McCanns, Dowlers, John Prescott and, er, Hugh Grant?
Who, in short, can – hand on heart – present themselves as an uncompromised and objective judge in the court of press ethics?
Without the compliance of the three aforementioned proprietors, whose newspapers account for the vast majority of national readership, these new Leveson-spawned regulations are going to go nowhere. Should they choose to prevaricate, Murdoch & Co will have ample opportunity to rail against disguised censorship. Real, or imagined.