This week the two main parties published their election manifestos.
Labour’s, which is set out below, is tighter on media reform than the leak from the previous week, and represents a good basis to build on (see CPBF’s Media Manifesto for what that could look like).
The Conservatives, on the other hand have thrown the press owners a life line by pledging to scrap part 2 of Leveson and repeal section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which would give victims of press abuse access to affordable justice.
Section 40 also provides that in the event a ‘relevant publisher’ (i.e., a provider of general news in print) is sued, and that publisher has chosen not to register with an ‘approved regulator’ (i.e one that is Leveson compliant), that publisher will be required to pay a claimant’s costs even if the publisher wins in court.
The provision was recommended by Leveson and supported by Parliament in 2013, but would only come into force once an approved regulator was set up (as IMPRESS was last autumn (see my blog “After all this time…” 27 October 2016).
The relevant section of the Labour Party Manifesto reads:
The BBC is a national asset which we should all be proud of. Unlike the Conservatives, Labour will always support it and uphold its independence. We will ensure the BBC and public service broadcasting has a healthy future. Labour is committed to keeping Channel 4 in public ownership and will guarantee the future of Welsh-language broadcaster S4C.
Victims of phone hacking have been let down by a Conservative government that promised them justice, but failed to follow through. We will implement the recommendations of part one of the Leveson Inquiry and commence part two which will look into the corporate governance failures that allowed the hacking scandal to occur.
Local newspapers and broadcasting in Britain are an important part of our democracy and culture. We are concerned about closures of local media outlets and the reductions in number of local journalists. Labour will hold a national review (into) local media and into the ownership of national media to ensure plurality.
To protect democracy and media freedom, we will take steps to ensure that Ofcom is better able to safeguard a healthy plurality of media ownership and to put in place clearer rules on who is fit and proper to own or run TV and radio stations.
It pledges to hold part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry which has been the source of intensive lobbying against by most of the media owners, who want to shut down any further public debate. And with the Fox bid for Sky still on the table, any further revelations about the behaviour of News International, on top of the recent reports about the behaviour of top management of Fox in the US, is the last thing Murdoch wants. It’s worth reminding ourselves just what part two is supposed to cover. The terms of reference read:
- To inquire into the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International, other newspaper organisations and, as appropriate, other organisations within the media, and by those responsible for holding personal data.
- To inquire into the way in which any relevant police force investigated allegations or evidence of unlawful conduct by persons within or connected with News International, the review by the Metropolitan Police of their initial investigation, and the conduct of the prosecuting authorities.
- To inquire into the extent to which the police received corrupt payments or other inducements, or were otherwise complicit in such misconduct or in suppressing its proper investigation, and how this was allowed to happen.
- To inquire into the extent of corporate governance and management failures at News International and other newspaper organisations, and the role, if any, of politicians, public servants and others in relation to any failure to investigate wrongdoing at News International.
- In the light of these inquiries, to consider the implications for the relationships between newspaper organisations and the police, prosecuting authorities, and relevant regulatory bodies – and to recommend what actions, if any, should be taken.
So whilst Labour wants to complete Leveson, which should mean that the Fox bid should have to be ‘on hold’, the Tories have come to their rescue by not only scraping Leveson part two, but by promising to repeal section 40 of the Crimes and Court Act, which is awaiting a decision on implementation following a public consultation held by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which closed on 17 January 2017. The consultation also included whether Leveson part 2 should should go ahead.
Here’s what the Conservative Party manifesto says:
A free media
At a time when the internet is changing the way people obtain their news, we also need to take steps to protect the reliability and objectivity of information that is essential to our democracy and a free and independent press. We will ensure content creators are appropriately rewarded for the content they make available online. We will be consistent in our approach to regulation of online and offline media. Given the comprehensive nature of the first stage of the Leveson Inquiry and given the lengthy investigations by the police and Crown Prosecution Service into alleged wrongdoing, we will not proceed with the second stage of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. We will repeal Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2014, which, if enacted, would force media organisations to become members of a flawed regulatory system or risk having to pay the legal costs of both sides in libel and privacy cases, even if they win.
Music to the ears of the media owners!
This paragraph might have been, and indeed conceivably was, written by our corrupt national press itself – their very own Get Out Of Jail Free card. And these are both U-turns by May, reversing positions she has publicly declared in the past. If it happens it will be just as if the world never found out that employees of Rupert Murdoch’s company hacked Milly Dowler’s phone.
There will be no effective, independent regulation for the press in this country despite its amply-proven record of amoral conduct and abuse of innocent people.
Nor will there be access to affordable justice for the victims when papers breach their legal human rights (which they have been proven to do a great deal). There is no legal aid, the no-win-no-fee system has been neutered and May is now promising to remove any hope of access to the meaningful low-cost arbitration recommended by Leveson.
So unless you can afford the six- and seven-figure bills that go with High Court action (which May’s premium supporters no doubt can) you might as well whistle for justice when you are libelled or when a newspaper intrudes illegally upon your privacy.
So let’s be clear: what May proposes is a carte blanche for the Mail, the Express, the Sun and others to break the law, and to behave as unethically as they wish. There will be nothing to stop them besides the feeble sham that is IPSO (the non Leveson complaint regulator).
Better than that, so far as the Dacres and Murdochs of this world are concerned, by promising to abandon the promised part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry May waves a magic wand over proven past criminality for which nobody has taken responsibility and throws away an opportunity to find out what they are up to now.
Leveson concluded – and four prime ministers admitted – that politicians and the press had got too close in recent decades and that the public had suffered gravely as a result. What has been the response of the press and of Theresa May? To get closer still.
This is a pact between newspaper bosses and politicians that sabotages British public life and exposes thousands of ordinary people to cruelty at the hands of unscrupulous newspapers. It is a piece of politics worthy of the very shabbiest banana republic.
So know we know what May means by ‘strong and stable government’. It’s keeping on the right side of the press barons.
A slightly different version of this article was originally published on Barry White’s blog