Has the latest deal moved beyond 'political opportunism' on Leveson?

By staff writers
March 18, 2013

As the three large Westminster parties seek a deal to handle the Leveson enquiry proposals on the press, details of a 'dab of statute' compromise are emerging - following what the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) General Secretary denounced as a bout of 'cynical political opportunism' in the matter.

Initial attempts to reach cross party consensus were abandoned, "presenting parliament with a half-baked proposal for a Royal Charter with no adequate protections for press freedom," the NUJ says.

Now it seems that the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have all moved behind the Charter idea with some modification, though the full details are just emerging this morning (18 March 2013).

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are claiming that they have achieved amendments to the Prime Minister's initially watered-down Charter to ensure that it cannot be "easily" manipulated by politicians.

There appears to be some provision for statutory underpinning, though the details are disputed ahead of the parliamentary lobby briefing at 11.30 am and the vote in the House of Lords tonight (18 March).

The deal looks to be a change regarding all Royal Charters, enabling the Conservatives to say that no statute has been agreed on a press one, and the opposition to talk of a "dab of statute, but statute most certainly".

However, experienced commentator and former newspaper editor Roy Greenslade said: 'There is [still] a long way yet to go in this affair because, despite this political fix, the industry has still to decide on the details of the regulator.

"Aside from the fact that there is no clear indication whether publishers and editors will accept the politicians' neat decision, they are still divided over the structure of the new regulation body."

Meanwhile, speaking before the weekend, NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: "It is hugely ironic that those owners and editors who vehemently opposed Leveson's recommendations for an independent regulatory system, have so lost perspective in the collective hysteria that has gripped them in recent months, that they've colluded in a Royal Charter fudge that could risk opening the door to future political meddling in our press."

She continued: "Such is Prime Minister David Cameron's desire to please his friends and potential press allies at a time when his political currency is low, that he is foisting a decision on parliament that, if passed, could create a system of regulation that doesn't create the genuinely independent, robust and responsible framework that's badly needed.

"It's a cynical move, coming after the clear cracks and differences amongst publishers that emerged [last] week – when it's become apparent to the editors of the Guardian, the Independent and the Financial Times that actually, some sort of statutory underpinning would be preferable to a Royal Charter model and would not constitute the attack on press freedom that some of their peers in the industry would have us believe."

The NUJ has consistently opposed the lack of transparency in the negotiations that have taken place since the publication of the Leveson report. Rather than seize an opportunity to engage with all interested parties in an open process, the discussions between those with the most power in the industry have been held behind closed doors, leading to claims of a stitch up.

Despite clear recommendations that the new regulator and its code committee should not be limited solely to editors and should include journalists and more members of the public, the publishers have lobbied hard to ensure only they and editors are represented on the new body.

The move on exemplary damages is to be welcomed, the union says, but there has been a disturbing lack of clarity about how this will be implemented.

"Members of parliament now have the opportunity to express their support for a genuinely free press, one that is responsible and not a deal that is an unworkable fudge. This is an opportunity to create a system that is accountable and inclusive – critically, involving journalists and the broader public in a co-regulatory body," the NUJ said in a statement on its website.

The NUJ has argued against state regulation, but for an independent regulatory body - independent of government and of the industry - that would: protect free expression and a free press; ensure high standards of journalism; have the authority and ability to regulate all commercially-driven press; include, as does the Irish Press Council, union representatives; fully defend journalists who protect their sources; enshrine a conscience clause for journalist; take to task the bullying newsrooms exposed by the union's evidence to Leveson; have the power to instigate investigations, including acting on complaints from journalists; provide a right of reply; be backed by the ability to impose sanctions, such as fines; take third-party complaints, not allowed in the current system; and represent members of the public.

* National Union of Journalists: http://www.nuj.org.uk/

* More on Leveson from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/leveson

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