The drama about the last-minute deal between Labour, Lib-Dems, and Tories over measures in response to the Leveson report on the phone-hacking scandal obscures the main issues in the scandal.
By controlling such a large part of the means of communication, through sheer wealth, Rupert Murdoch and his cronies play a large part in the public life of the country. They observe no social responsibility or accountability.
The police and Government advisers, if not ministers, were shown to be in cahoots with the Murdoch empire.
All that has been glossed over. Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership did decide that Labour had been slavish to Murdoch for too long. They did speak out. But they never proposed anything that would really call Murdoch to account.
The deal is as follows:
• A “Recognition Panel” will be set up to supervise and approve a new regulatory body, a souped-up version of the current Press Complaints Commission, which in turn was a souped-up version (from 1991) of the previous Press Council.
• The new regulator will be set up by a Royal Charter, with a proviso that the terms of the Charter cannot be changed except by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. (However, there is no absolute obstacle to a future parliament changing that proviso).
• The new regulatory body will be able to “direct” newspapers to make apologies, not merely “require” them. The nuance is said to make its legal position stronger.
• The press code of conduct will be written by a committee consisting of one-third newspaper editors, one-third journalists and one-third lay people.
• Newspaper bosses will choose one member to sit on the appointments panel for the regulatory body and loses its right of veto over regulator membership.
The Leveson recommendation that newspaper publishers who refuse to join the regulatory body (like Solidarity and other radical publications) may be subject to exemplary damages in libel cases will be implemented.
Already, the British libel law enables rich media companies to abuse with impunity poor people who cannot afford to bring libel cases, and rich people with a taste for it to go to law to suppress criticism of themselves.
The big media groups are not happy about aspects of the deal e.g. the ability of the new regulatory body to “direct” newspapers to make apologies and having “outsiders” draw up the code of conduct.
The labour movement should demand that the assets of the big media companies be taken into public ownership, under democratic control, and access to them be guaranteed for all currents of opinion above a certain minimum of support, with strong provisos for rights of reply and minority opinions.