It is not often government ministers find themselves popular with the press: Sajid Javid, the culture secretary, should enjoy the feeling while he can. His predecessor, Maria Miller, resigned over an expenses controversy that was first revealed in The Daily Telegraph and developed into a familiar war of attrition between government and papers. By the end her critics were asking not only what was the point of Ms Miller, but also of her department.
Now the Department of Culture Media and Sport is evidently one of Whitehall’s finest and Mr Javid is a future prime minister. We recently saw an excellent picture of him in the Daily Mail, meeting the Queen and Lord and Lady Rothermere at a reception for the Journalists’ Charity. The newspaper industry confers no greater seal of approval. What a good idea of his to announce, at the birth of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), successor to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), that it was up to newspapers to get on with self-regulation. How sensible of him to emphasise the important work that newspapers do in safeguarding democracy.
Suddenly the spectre of government interference with the press, the horrors of royal charters and the influence of show business agitators are no more. We have a new beginning. Or, if you take a more critical view, we are back to business as normal. You can see why Hacked Off, which thought everything was going to change last year that night it found itself close to the centre of political discussions on the future of the press, is so upset. Some of the players who have put the deal together have “previous”; Ipso takes on many of the staff and facilities of the PCC; differences between the old and new systems are not obvious. There is also an arrogant lack of contrition about the past and a whiff of triumphalism in the way newspapers are reporting developments, together with a touch too much emphasis on the astonishing objectivity of the first chairman of Ipso, Sir Alan Moses, appeal court judge. Not since King Solomon…
It is not as though Mr Javid’s decision is based on any obvious new logic. Rather, it is the natural response of a politician – and a government – with a general election coming in less than a year. This is no time to pick a further quarrel with the press on a matter that, for all the best attempts of Hacked Off, has never ignited the real interest of the voters.
But not liking how we got here does not necessarily make here a bad place. For a start, we can stop the big argument about the independence of the press. Whether politicians were to be in or out, they are clearly out now. Second, a number of complaints became matters for investigation under existing criminal law. They’ve come to court. That’s the proper course. Third, on territory outside the criminal law, it’s been possible both to acknowledge that the press has behaved badly and to argue that some of that bad behaviour has been to do with tone, which cannot be regulated. Papers are rude and no royal charter would have changed that. Finally, albeit in private, editors know they have to behave better. The new body is likely to come down hard on papers that break the code, for it needs to show teeth if it is to gain our confidence.
Will it work? The Financial Times is staying out. The Guardian, Independent and London Evening Standard have still to decide. The FT has made a good argument for its decision, based on its increasingly global market and specialist coverage. It would be good to have the other three titles in, but not a disaster if they remain outside.
Sir Alan Moses will surely want to record some early victories, but he and Ipso must judge which matters breach codes; which hurt innocent people but are justified in the gathering of news and which demonstrate that long-standing habit of British editors to pick targets and write offensively. The new, self-regulating body must come down only on the first. As for the newspaper industry, despite the bravado it is showing now – an “up yours” manner, wrapped in a banner of self-importance, that half-blinds its critics with impotent rage – it knows that plans for an alternative form of regulation are there to be dusted off by a future government. Let’s give Ipso a chance to work.