Playing politics with ‘The Street of Shame’ is no way to gag the UK Press

IN ten days’ time the Privy Council will ask – nay, require! – The Queen to sign a Royal Charter, which, depending on who you believe, will set out new ‘guidelines’ for Press regulation or put politicians in control of what British newspapers can print.

Sure, you can cavil that the above statement is the sort of typical, dramatic spin you’d expect from a journalist. But those are the cold facts and the harsh reality is 300 years of Press freedom is about to be tossed into the wastebin of history, like an empty fag packet.

For all their smooth talk about papers retaining their entitlement to print what they want, the politicos – and that includes most MPs, regardless of party affiliation – are still seething about being outed over their grubby, expenses rip-off by the Daily Telegraph’s revelations in 2009.

So, take it as read that one, highly contentious clause in the proposed changes isn’t there without devious reason…that Parliament can only interfere with the Press if it can muster a two-thirds majority in favour (note: this requirement could be changed by a simple majority of MPs).

My best guess is it will meddle, because it’s in the vested interests of the UK’s elected representatives’ to do so.

In fact, the siren has been sounded and the first boot went in last week when Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, dismissed the Press’s own recommendations to beef up self-regulation, stating they ‘did not comply with government policy.’

PRESS UNDER DURESS: New rules will leave the politicians with powers to curb newspapers

PRESS UNDER DURESS: New rules will leave the politicians with powers to curb newspapers

Government policy? What fork-tongued dross! Royal Charters are not laws, but rights or grants at the ‘gift’ or the monarch.

Besides, implementing recommendations suggested by Lord Justice Leveson in his report of last November was supposed to be consensual – i.e. that editors and politicians agreed on a formula to curb what some dubbed as ‘Press excess’ – but no such eventuality occurred.

What did happen, though, was a rump of MPs met in furtive conclave, junked the editors’ ideas and steamrollered through their original agenda.

No member of the Press was invited to present its case – just as no journalist was around when representatives of the three, main parties met in Ed Miliband’s office, over take-away pizzas, just post-Leveson, to hammer out terms of the newspapers’ surrender. Oddly, luvvies from the media witch-hunt brigade, Hacked Off, were given an ear (and, no doubt, a slice of Domino’s finest Mozzarella and mushroom).

Understandably, editors were a tad chagrined by this secretive stitch-up…‘Pizza’d off,’ you might say.

In a statement, they said, ‘This remains a charter written by politicians, imposed by politicians and controlled by politicians.

‘It is impossible to see how a regulator operating under rules imposed by politicians, and enforced by draconian and discriminatory provisions for damages and costs in civil cases, could be said to be either voluntary or independent.’

Leveson himself is more than irked by the shenanigans over the first part of his report – Part Two is due after the multiple police investigations are over and any ensuing criminal proceedings concluded – because what MPs are doing is exactly what he didn’t recommend.

The Law Lord recently insisted to the House of Commons Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, ‘The concept of the Royal Charter was not mine. I did not think of it. What’s more, nobody suggested it.’

What he did recommend, however, was – as the editors said – ‘voluntary, independent, self-regulation’, perhaps with Ofcom, which regulates television, having its brief extended to act as an arbiter of last resort to cover newspapers.

Instead, Leveson’s Report was hijacked by a cartel of politicos and a circus of celebrity whingers, banging a morality drum, who, for convergent reasons, want British journalism’s self-styled Street of Shame leashed.

As I pointed out here last December, Prime Minister David Cameron made a monumental gaffe in appointing Leveson to look into the ‘culture and practices’ of the Press, following allegations (which they continue to be, until somebody is found guilty) of, principally, phone-hacking and bribing police.

Cameron was embarrassingly denuded, left with something other than his parliamentary order paper dangling in his hand, when his ex-spinmeister and former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, along with his country pursuits chum, Rebekah Brooks – then boss of Rupert Murdoch’s News International – were implicated in the scandal.

So, in a naïve, knee-jerk bid to distance himself from the brouhaha, the PM enlisted the judge, of whom I have no criticism, to perform an impossible task, which he did with praiseworthy objectivity.

Yet again, as I have previously noted, criminal law already proscribes tapping into the telecommunications of others, greasing the palms of pliant plods and invasions of privacy.

JUDGEMENT DISPUTE: Lord Justice Leveson says he never recommended a Royal Charter imposed on the Press

JUDGEMENT DISPUTE: Lord Justice Leveson says he never recommended a Royal Charter imposed on the Press

So what was Leveson for? And, what’s more, where will it lead, except – at this rate – to politicians wielding undue influence over the Press?

All but two national newspapers indicate their refusal to sign up to the Royal Charter, the dissenters being the hypocritical, holier-than-thou Guardian – which says it is mulling over the rebellion – and the nearly non-existent Independent.

As an aside, it’s a bit rich for The Guardian to even consider toeing the government line, just as it overflows with exposés about Secret Service surveillance operations, which MI5 head, Andrew Parker, lambasted as ‘putting Britain’s security at risk’.

One can only but wonder how long the hymn sheet of the hard Left glee club will be able to carry on leaking classified info under the proposed, new regime.

Certainly, though, the Royal Charter will douse the flame of investigative journalism, for which the British Press, warts and all, has a matchless reputation.

Yes, it’s often rumbustious, irreverent and occasionally foolhardy. And, yes, it should clean up its act, especially where media innocents – like the family of murdered schoolgirl, Millie Dowler – are concerned.

But UK newspapers are still the envy of the world, particularly in countries where Press freedom is a far-flung pipedream.

So, if anyone wants government-speak posing as journalism, can I suggest they subscribe to The Chinese People’s Daily or Pravda.

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