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In the decade 2008–18, between the phone hacking scandal and the cancellation of part two of the Leveson Inquiry, the editorial position of The Guardian on press regulation changed markedly.

Starting from a position of indifference, the newspaper then demanded wholesale reform before going back to indifference and even active opposition to change. Inevitably, this entailed reversals and contradictions, yet these were not acknowledged to the newspaper’s readers, who are left with a misleading impression of continuity.

Taking up arms

The Guardian broke from the industry party line on press reform following the revelation by Nick Davies (The Guardian, July 2009) that News of the World journalists had illegally accessed mobile phone voicemails on a large scale and that the paper’s owners, Rupert Murdoch’s News International, had spent nearly £1 million covering this up.

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) had previously looked into hacking and had accepted News International’s assurance that it was the work of a single reporter acting alone; now The Guardian had evidence to the contrary and it asked the PCC to establish the truth. In the teeth of the evidence, the PCC sided with the News of the World.

The Guardian responded by denouncing the PCC as a sham and demanding change, though there was no challenge yet to the principle that only the press could manage its own regulation.

Root and branch

Having done more than any other group to bring about the Leveson Inquiry of 2011–12, The Guardian set the pace for regulatory reform during the hearings. Its proposals were summed up in an editorial:

We believe in independent regulation, both from politicians and the press itself. We do believe in a contract system – not the use of statute – to secure participation. But we also believe in an arbitral arm which incentivises the regulated to pursue high standards and penalises anyone who walks away. We believe that the regulator must have real investigatory powers and sanctions.

This ambitious position, in favour of independent, effective regulation incorporating an arbitral arm and with carrots and sticks to encourage membership, placed The Guardian wholly at odds with the larger national newspaper corporations, which were arguing for minimal change.

Second thoughts

If The Guardian’s earlier summary of its position on regulation had been a checklist, then the recommendations that eventually emerged in Sir Brian Leveson’s report ticked every box, yet in the months and years that followed the newspaper failed to endorse the report or the measures for implementation that were agreed by all the political parties.

What objections The Guardian may have had to the reform package were never fully or clearly explained. We know, however, that it had endorsed the process from which it emerged, the use both of legislation and royal charter to make change effective and the principle of using the allocation court costs in civil cases as a lever to encourage participation. 

What appeared to concern The Guardian, most was the resistance to change of the big newspaper groups, and it struggled to avert a confrontation.  It suggested delay; it wanted to reopen talks with all interested parties; it proposed an informal regulatory arrangement which could be tested for a year.

The big companies were not interested, remaining relentlessly hostile to the charter (which The Guardian endorsed) and to regulatory independence of the kind that was the most basic Guardian requirement. But still the paper refused to commit to the reforms or to give the kind of leadership it had earlier offered.

Had it declared its backing for Leveson-standard regulation, others such as the Financial Times and the Independent might have followed, which would have put the charter scheme to a public test in the national newspaper world and greatly increased pressure on the big companies to accept change.

Instead, the paper set up its own complaints system (which was not independent) and simply accepted the new status quo elsewhere, as the big companies set up a successor to the PCC called the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which fell far short of the standards set out in the Leveson Report.

A new party line

In early 2017 Theresa May’s government, cheered on by the big newspaper groups, announced its intention to bin the reforms entirely and cancel the second phase of the Leveson inquiry, which was to address criminality. Most other parties, a majority of the public and Sir Brian Leveson himself were opposed to this.

Now The Guardian joined its former newspaper adversaries in supporting the May government, offering arguments that contradicted many of its previous positions and echoing the propaganda of the big companies by casually equating charter regulation with state regulation.

On 9 May 2018, with The Guardian’s help, the government secured the cancellation of Leveson 2 by nine Commons votes. The ‘stick and carrot’ legislation was not repealed, but neither was it put into effect, meaning that news publishers remain under no pressure to participate in reformed regulation.

This absence of accountability continues to claim many victims. IPSO, having received 8,148 complaints about discrimination in one year, managed to uphold only one. In flagrant disregard of the principle of regulatory independence, a senior Conservative politician, Lord Faulks, was made IPSO’s chair.

The Guardian reports on these matters but offers no editorial view. Indeed, it has said that IPSO ‘should be allowed to continue’. There is once again an accepted newspaper party line on press regulation which serves the interests of the papers rather than the public.

Based on a longer article in the Political Quarterly journal.

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