Intense, often bitter discussions focus on how regulator can be independent of editors while not impinging on press freedom
It will be difficult for politicians to avoid hyperbole when they take part in Monday’s Commons debate over press regulation. David Cameron will surely raise aloft the press freedom banner handed to him by publishers and editors in order to persuade MPs not to take the country back 300 years to the licensing of newspapers.
On the other side, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg will remind their party comrades of the journalistic misbehaviour catalogued during Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry and insist that the only way to prevent it reoccurring is to legislate.
This will be a weekend of intense lobbying. Tory MPs who have previously favoured statute will be reminded of the need for party loyalty. Fringe parties, who could prove so important, will surely be contacted too.
But it is important to grasp that the conflict over whether or not to underpin the royal charter with statute is merely the public facade concealing an increasingly complicated, and often bitter, set of disputes behind the scenes.
What is really at issue is the contradiction at the heart of the oxymoron that dogged the Leveson inquiry: “independent self-regulation”. The intense political discussions have been less about statute than about the difficulty of constructing a regulatory system that can be genuinely independent of editors without impinging on their freedom to go about their public mission to hold power to account.
I understand that the prime minister, and even editors, might well have been relaxed about accepting the famous “dab of statute”. Of much greater concern, however, are the exact arrangements involved in running a new system.
Essentially, the fear of many editors is that they would lose control of the regulator to people outside the industry. They therefore wish to have a veto on who sits in judgment on their activities and even over the writing of a new ethical code.
They also wish to find some way of ensuring that the levying of fines, should that ever be necessary, would be subject to some kind of industry oversight. In other words, the majority of publishers and editors wish to stipulate that self-regulation has to mean what it says. They must retain the levers of power.
It is possible that these hugely important details will be raised by MPs, but they may get drowned out by the noise of the press freedom ballyhoo.
The problems have certainly been aired at length, and with increasing ferocity, in the private industry discussions overseen by Trinity Mirror’s legal director Paul Vickers. He has watched the initial acceptance by editors of Leveson’s recommendations gradually fall apart.
Given Thursday’s arrests of four former and current senior staff at Trinity Mirror, he will be especially and acutely aware of the continuing pressure on national newspapers. Both within the industry, and abroad, there is a growing belief that British press freedom is under threat because of the wave of arrests.
However, the public – the people who vote politicians into power – tend to see matters very differently. They view the press as some kind of homogenous institution, a power in the land, and one that has been somehow corrupted.
MPs who will decide the fate of press regulation cannot be other than aware that trust in journalism is at a low ebb just now. That could well influence how they vote on Monday.