Newspaper editors are under pressure to come up with a new system of press regulation that works, and the Prime Minister is under pressure to show that he is taking the need for a new system seriously, rather than just bowing down to media bosses. So is a Royal Charter the solution that would ensure the new press watchdog would remain independent of and tough on the newspapers? Reports have surfaced in the press that Oliver Letwin is mulling over the idea as a way of avoiding statutory underpinning while giving assurances about the new regime. The Economist reports:
‘Oliver Letwin, the minister in charge of squaring this awkward circle, has suggested that another upstanding body could verify the new set-up, without resorting to statute. One option might be a trust, consisting of worthies gathered mainly from outside Fleet Street, or even a Royal Charter of the sort that underpins the BBC.’
But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman wouldn’t be drawn on whether this is something on the table when grilled on the matter this morning. He said:
‘We are digesting the Leveson report and considering a range of options. That’s what the Prime Minister said in his statement just a week ago. What we want to achieve is a proper independent regulator which commands the confidence of the public.’
‘We are not in a position to say anything more about that now. You know what the objective is: it’s that we have proper, independent regulation of the press.’
At what point did Leveson start to think statute would be necessary? Charles Moore’s column in this week’s magazine says it was when Hugh Grant received a drubbing in the Mail for suggesting the newspaper hacked his phone. He writes:
‘When the history of the Leveson report comes to be written (which I hope it won’t, because press regulation is the most tedious of all subjects), the evidence of Hugh Grant will be seen as the turning point. Grant accused the Daily Mail of hacking his phone. The explosive reaction of the Mail, with great headlines yelling about his mendacity, was the moment, I gather, when the iron entered the soul of Lord Leveson. He and his panel felt that, since every witness was on oath, none should be trashed. When the Mail decided to assassinate Grant’s character in print, it seemed to Leveson to confirm everything about the behaviour of the press which worried him. His recommendation of statute-backed regulation was the result. So Paul Dacre’s fight for press freedom may turn out like Arthur Scargill’s fight to save pits.’
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.