Back from holiday, I find a story that won’t be making headlines in the British tabloid press – that the public prefers the government’s vision of press regulation to that of industry. According to an opinion poll the government’s preferred option for supervising the new independent regulator to be set up in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal beats the alternative drawn up by the press owners by a distance of around four to one.
After months of wrangling over how to respond to the long-running Leveson inquiry into press standards, which last year concluded with lacerating criticisms of Britain’s tabloid culture, there is still no agreement on how to set up Leveson’s proposal for an independent press regulator to replace the discredited Press Complaints Commission.
At the moment the issue is in the hands of the Privy Council, a distinguished body of the great and good that decides on Royal Charters which give legal and constitutional standing to independent public institutions, such as the BBC.
The Council has to choose between two competing plans for Royal Charters to cover a new press regulation body, one proposed by the industry and one supported by parliament and proposed by the government.
Although no-one should hold their breath (this process is expected to take months) the Council is first looking at the proposal submitted by the industry. As they do so, they will almost certainly be aware that half the respondents in the poll organised by YouGov support the parliamentary charter, while only 13 per cent back the press charter. In addition, only 15 per cent of those polled think that newspapers should set up their own system.
The poll is sign that while some press owners hoped the storm of outrage and anger after phone-hacking, the closure of the News of the World and the publication of the Leveson report is yesterday’s news, the controversy is still fresh in the mind of the public.
The Leveson report was published last November and approved by parliament in March and many people are fed up with continuing delay over the issue. Some 63 per cent of those polled say that implementation is overdue or that it should happen now.
Although there’s much argument over the fine detail of the proposals, the public is impatient for change and there is clear support for a system independent of the newspaper industry.
So far The Guardian and The Independent are the only newspapers that have not declared themselves in support of the industry proposal.
Press owners remain hopeful that they will weather the continuing storm. This month the industry published details of a proposed new regulating body which will be known as the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The industry hopes to have more than 200 publishers quickly signed up, but they will still need the approval of a Royal Charter recognition body if publishers are enjoy one of the rewards of reform promised by Leveson – immunity from the threat of exemplary damages in libel cases.