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Neither state control nor uncontrolled licence: there is a better way for the media

I’m not sure what is the correct collective noun for a pack of editors whingeing, but they were certainly in full cry yesterday at the Leveson inquiry. It’s a pity it didn’t reflect the extraordinarily candid, and accurate, admission in The Times yesterday that News International was “unable or unwilling to police itself” and that it was “a disgrace” that it had failed to do so. Amen to that.

But inveighing against State control as a means of heading off any regulation at all simply won’t wash:

  • Should any one person or organisation control more than one daily and one Sunday paper? I thnk not.
  • Should the law restricting monopolistic cross-media ownership between the broadcast and print media, which Thatcher swept to one side in the 1980s to start Murdoch on his way to power, be consolidated and strengthened? Surely it should.
  • Should a right of reply be instituted as elsewhere, giving space and prominence equal to that of the offending article? Surely yes.
  • How best can new entrants to the media market be encouraged to increase diversity and improve balance in the press? Not by licensing, but by finding new ways to stimulate such diversity and better balance.

Nearly all of this will require new legislation.

What the editors interviewed by Leveson refuse to recognise, except perhaps for Rusbridger, is that self-regulation, or voluntary regulation, has comprehensively failed. David Mellor, the Tory Minister responsible for oversight of the media, warned in the early 1990s that the press was drinking in the last chance saloon.

Since then things have got steadily worse. The Press Complaints Commission, chaired by a Tory peer, was so feeble over the hacking scandal as to be almost a joke. Desmond, the pornographer owner of the Express stable, simply walked away from the PCC when he didn’t like their interference and refused to accept their judgements. The diabolical persecution of the McCanns and of Christopher Jefferies cry out for a regulator with the power to call a halt and to summon to account.

James Harding, editor of the Times, spinning a tale that once the regulator has any statutory power at all, next thing the Prime Minister will be dictating what goes into tomorrow’s papers, is sheer fictional hysteria. Nobody wants, or will ever accept, politicians having any say in the contents of the press (though strenuous efforts to secure that are already happening all the time under the present system, as the career of Mandelson attests). But to claim, as Harding, Witherow and Mockridge do, the current Murdoch trio, that to give a regulator the powers actually to stop the worst and manifest abuses of the press will end civiliation as we know it, is just silly. But people when they’re rattled so say a lot of silly things.

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