Despite being cleared of the crimes of the national press by the Leveson Inquiry, local papers will suffer the most under new statutory regulation approved by Parliament, writes Advertiser and Express editor Martin Trepte.
We all went to bed on Monday night a little less free than when we woke up that morning.
The intervening hours had seen our politicians approve, for the first time in more than 300 years, state regulation of the press.
A deal on a Royal Charter had been hammered out in a late-night meeting between the three main political parties – though it later emerged representatives of celebrity lobby group Hacked Off were also present. The Charter was accepted by Parliament without a vote.
It will set up a new ‘independent’ press regulator aimed at curbing the excesses of some elements of the national press following their public vilification at the Leveson Inquiry.
This, the Prime Minister claims, is not statutory regulation of the press.
But later on Monday MPs approved by an overwhelming majority an amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill introducing exemplary damages – that’s huge extra financial penalties – that could be imposed by a court on newspapers not signed up to the regulator.
There is no doubt this is statutory regulation.
And in the House of Lords peers added a clause to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill which means the Royal Charter can be altered by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament.
This is also statutory regulation. It means MPs retain the power to change the Royal Charter to bring in more rules to curb press freedom.
But surely ‘the press’ needs reining in after the phone hacking scandal, paying police for stories, harassing celebrities and trial by newspaper?
Hacked Off has campaigned vociferously, hi-jacking the moral high ground and making emotive demands for justice for the victims of the abhorrent behaviour of ‘the press’.
But all these things are already illegal. Laws exist to prevent them. They should have been enforced but were not.
Why do we need new laws when perfectly good existing ones were not used?
Now, to bring the recalcitrant ‘press’ to heel, the new regulatory body will introduce million pound fines, prominent corrections and an arbitration service for complainants.
No more than the tabloids deserve and what is needed to restore public confidence in press regulation, you might think. Except ‘the press’ is far more than a handful of national newspapers.
Lord Justice Leveson exonerated local papers in his inquiry, praising our important social and democratic role and saying the new regulator should not be an added burden on us.
Yet the deal announced on Monday will place a crippling financial burden on the UK’s 1,100 local newspapers – particularly independently-owned papers like ours.
Funding the regulator will cost us many times more than the existing Press Complaints Commission. Though discredited at the Leveson Inquiry for its regulation of the national press, the PCC has served the readers of the local press well.
And the new arbitration service will open the floodgates to compensation claimants looking for a quick pay-off from cash-strapped local papers fearful of the ongoing legal costs of fighting a complaint.
The culture it will spawn will inhibit freedom of speech and freedom to publish.
What has been conveniently forgotten in this whole sorry mess is the great good a free press does – the injustices prevented, the causes championed, the politicians held to account, the battles fought on behalf of those who do not have a voice – and the simple fact ‘the public does have a right to know’.
It is unclear what will happen next. But the Royal Charter is not the independent self-regulation Leveson called for.
Local papers like the Advertiser and Express remain fiercely opposed to any form of statutory underpinning in the regulation of the press.
But we have been painted into a corner by a combination of the excesses of the national press, a coalition of self-serving celebrities and lobbyists, and populist politicians lacking the courage to stand up to them.
Ultimately, a free press cannot be free if it is dependent on and accountable to a regulatory body recognised by the state. And without a free press, the freedom of us all is curtailed.
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