“Now tell us what ’twas all about,”
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
“Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.”
News International is rebranded News UK, Rebekah Brooks is restored to the throne, journalists have walked free. If the mighty battle that has been raging over the last four years is fizzling out, what has the war been for?
It is not drawing to a close with the kind of “famous victory” that pricked the curiosity of Robert Southey’s child characters inquiring about Blenheim. It’s over because the participants have fought each other to a standstill, the press has pretended there is nothing left to quarrel about and the politicians have decided they are well out of it.
So we shall not dwell on the Mirror group paying out to celebrities whose phones were hacked. Let us draw a veil over those 25 or so police and prison officers, health staff and other civil servants given prison sentences for misconduct in public office. Then, if we keep ignoring the Press Recognition Panel, a body created with £3 million of public money and still urgently seeking a regulator to recognise, perhaps it will go away.
Of course, there has been no formal cessation of hostilities. The pressure group for reform of the press, Hacked Off, has neither disbanded nor given up its weapons. Rather, the evidence that this government has no stomach for any continuing fight was demonstrated by the culture secretary John Whittingdale, in his speech to the Society of Editors in October.
On the face of it he was talking tough: “Let me be very clear: I would like to see the press bring themselves within the Royal Charter’s scheme of recognition.” There was, he pointed out, an incentive to do so, for from November 3 a provision in the Crime and Courts Act prevents any member of a regulator that is recognised by the Recognition Panel having exemplary damages imposed on it. That is the famous “carrot”.
But the infamous “stick”? A clause in the same Crime and Courts Act, which envisages that publishers who have not joined a recognised selfregulator will lose their ability to claim back costs in libel and privacy cases, whether they lose or win: “I have to say that at the moment, I am not convinced the time is right for the introduction of these costs provisions.”
So the stick has not disappeared, but judging by the audience response, no one is expecting a beating. No wonder supporters of regulation with greater supervision – some of them on the board of the British Journalism Review – are so angry. The press has presented a highly coloured account of the Royal Charter, claimed that it represents state control and created in Ipso an alternative regulatory framework that looks astonishingly like the Press Complaints Commission it replaced.
Another view is that the result is preferable to any alternative. There are some brutes and bullies in British newspapers, but the charter remedy proposed is worse, first in creating a potential element of ultimate parliamentary oversight – however distant – second in introducing that intimidating proposal to make publishers outside the protection of a sanctioned regulatory body face crippling legal costs.
Those are proper reasons to support the position we have reached and forgive the machinations that have brought us here. The man in charge of Ipso, the former judge Sir Alan Moses, has a dangerous tendency to allow his wit to overshadow his intelligence, but his love of a quick gag does not diminish a real desire to make his organisation work.
As he told a group of lawyers: “My only concern is to preside over an organisation that, in seeking to protect the public from abuse, makes decisions and acts independently, free from the control of those who decided that it was in their own interest to create such a body.” In other words, the public interest is greater than that of his masters.
It’s a proper statement of intent. We shall see whether the papers that pay him allow him the power to make that aspiration reality.