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Leveson isn’t half what needs to be done about the press

It is reported that the political parties are inching towards an agreement on the Leveson report. Bully for them. Letwin, Cameron’s aide for the inter-party talks, proposed that the independent self-regulatory system should be ‘verified’ by royal charter, but conceded that that needed to be underpinned by a parliamentary process to prevent his proposal being subsequently overturned by some future government.

What that might involve is a requirement that it could not be altered except by a majority of two-thirds of MPs (as is already the requirement designed to entrench the 5-year parliamentary fixed term). It would also require statute to pressure newspapers into participating in the self-regulatory system and prevent rogue proprietors like the pornographer Richard Desmond, the owner of the Express titles, walking out as he did with the previous PCC. That might require the levying of exemplary damages against those who had breached the law but refused to participate, and that would need statute to secure the enforcement power. But that is still scarcely even the half of it.

There is still the key question of who sits on the self-regulatory body, and if it is to be genuinely independent, who picks the names? This is a crucial ‘who guards the guardians?’ question, which so far received almost no attention because of the contentiousness of the debate over statutory underpinning. But it is essential that however it is decided – certainly not by the Prime Minister nor by the press editors – it should not be ratified until it has been approved by parliament’s relevant select committee (DCMS).

Beyond that, there are still essential changes that need to be made before it can ever be claimed that we have a genuinely free and independent press in this country. These changes include:

  • No proprietor should own more than one daily and one Sunday newspaper,
  • There should no cross-ownership allowed between the written and broadcast media; in other words that legal position should be restored which existed before Thatcher revoked it in 1981, allowing Murdoch to assemble his media hegemony in exchange for his press support to allow Thatcher to assemble her electoral hegemony in the 1980s,
  • No newspaper selling in Britain should be owned by a proprietor who is not a British citizen, and no incorporated press organisation should be allowed to sell newspapers in Britain unless it pays full corporation and other taxes to the UK treasury and is not registered offshore.
  • To encourage media diversity that truly reflects the range of public opinion in Britain, start-up grants should be made available to new titles for a temporary period (5-7 years on a degressive scale) in accordance with votes cast at the previous general election,
  • Press ownership should gradually be transferred over a 10-year period away from the control of media tycoons on the basis of private wealth to a trust structure stipulated to reflect a broad political representation in the public interest.

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