Which stories will we not be allowed to read? *

Independent on Sunday, 13 October 2013

Joan Smith says her profession has nothing to fear from the new plan to regulate the press

Two years ago, just before the Leveson inquiry began, I watched Paul Dacre make a speech. The Daily Mail editor was so angry that his hands were shaking. He painted an apocalyptic picture of a future in which the British press would be subject to the kind of restrictions endured by journalists in Zimbabwe. It was nonsense and hyperbole – I’ve worked on free expression for years and I know how repressive regimes operate. But it offered a useful insight: this, I realised, was how the campaign to challenge the overweening power of some editors and proprietors was going to be misrepresented.

This weekend, the volume of misrepresentation has been deafening. But I want to offer some warnings as the sky supposedly falls in on Britain’s 300-year-old tradition of a free press. No one ever gave up power without a fight; in a country which has never had an effective system of redress for people whose lives have been wrecked by the most heartless intrusion, the prospect that victims will be able to complain to an independent body is truly alarming for vested interests. Those with weak arguments usually try to shift the debate, which is why so many right-wing commentators are fulminating against “state regulation”.

I have been a journalist all my working life. I do not support state regulation of the press, and that isn’t what the royal charter agreed two days ago represents. Politicians won’t be involved in the decisions of an independent regulator, which will draw up its own code of ethics; crucially, they will not be able to change the charter without a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament. This safeguard means it would be easier for a government to pass emergency legislation to restrict press freedom through a simple majority than change the terms of the charter.

Even the most ferocious critics of the charter have not explained what kind of stories would be prevented from publication under its terms. It would not have prevented the Daily Mail from printing smears about Ed Miliband’s father or accusing The Guardian of treason. I’m rather hoping this is the start of a series in which the paper goes increasingly mad and calls for the expulsion of everyone who believes in equality and human rights. There are more of us than Mr Dacre realises, I’m pleased to say.

No one seriously argues that broadcasting, regulated by Ofcom, is censored by the state. The proposition that people should be able to seek redress from an independent body when journalists publish inaccuracies or harass the bereaved is hardly revolutionary. Beware of posturing about threats to press freedom: what diehard critics of the cross-party charter really fear is an end to impunity – the prerogative of tyrants everywhere.

* None

Joan Smith is on the board of campaign group ‘Hacked Off’

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