Has the latest press regulation vehicle had its wheels buckled on the factory floor? The straight answer, in deference to Lord Leveson’s strictures on accuracy and distortion, is that we don’t know. But the outlook is not good. Yesterday brought us the spectacle of the three party leaders almost falling over themselves in the rush to slap each other on the back. Whatever differences had prompted David Cameron to storm out of talks last week had seemingly evaporated in the wee small hours of Sunday night, in the manner of a bickering couple getting back together in a dimly lit piano bar. Yet as soon as dawn broke it became evident that this was a clumsy patch-up job. Cameron insisted he had not crossed the Rubicon by creating a regulator with statutory underpinning: the others were adamant that they had. The Royal Charter was to be protected by a guarantee that only a two-thirds majority of Parliament could change it – which sounded good, until the likes of @loveandgarbage started pointing out that this guarantee could itself be abolished by a simple majority. And then there is the awkward and confusing detail that what was agreed yesterday wasn’t a press regulator at all, but the framework within which a new independent, voluntary regulatory body will operate.
All this brings us round to the weakness underpinning the whole set-up. Voluntary self-regulation is only as strong as the will of the regulated parties to submit to it. And already the major newspaper groups are snarling in resistance at the whole idea. Toby Young in the Telegraph says the new system should be “resisted by any means necessary”. The Sun, which not so long ago boasted of winning an election for the Conservatives, declaimed that “our democracy is tarnished”. “For centuries, men and women fought and died for the principle of free speech,” thundered Dominic Sandbrook in the Daily Mail, just beside a trailer for a death-defying expose of how Slender Selena Gomez legged it to a TV interview in a very short dress. (I’d like to tell you what The Times says about a free press, but they’ve gone and put it behind a paywall). The newspapers could have been pro-active in setting up a robust, transparent and fair system of regulation: instead they clasped their hands to their ears and screamed “freedom of speech” whenever anyone so much as thought of the word ‘accountability’. In the end the politicians seem to have given up and gone ahead without them. The result is a winged bicycle of a solution: an elaborate contraption that looks sophisticated but will never fly. The threat of exemplary damages for publications that refuse to sign up could not have been better calculated to promote the kind of entrenched stand-offs and plaster-saint martyrdom that doomed the Press Complaints Commission and its predecessors.
In the end, what are we left with? An optional regulatory system that uses the medieval instrument of a Royal Charter to oversee the 21st-century media. A crazy-paving path of accountability leading ultimately to that democratic relic, the Privy Council. A clumsy attempt to press-gang reluctant newspapers into joining a voluntary body that will only sharpen their resistance to it. And, in the two-thirds majority, a statutory underpinning that turns out to be made of papier mache. Really, the best thing to be done with this botched contraption is to dismantle it and go back to the drawing board.