by Atul Hatwal
Pity the Guardian. Such good work in bringing hacking into the light and making the case for a full independent inquiry: more than any other newspaper, the Guardian helped reveal the full scale of malfeasance across the press.
Nick Davies and Amelia Hill won scoop of the year at this year’s press awards for their story on the hacking of the Dowlers and the paper has been rightly lauded for its dogged and fearless work.
Now, having shown the world why change is needed, days before Lord Leveson delivers his proposals to reform the way the media is regulated, the Guardian has bottled it.
On Friday, the paper ran a long, meticulously parsed editorial giving their position on regulation. Amid the nuanced 1,130 word meander, there is one salient sentence,
“We do believe in a contract system – not the use of statute – to secure participation.”
It’s easy to become lost in the minutiae of regulatory reform, and the Guardian editorial certainly does an excellent job of getting tangled in the weeds, but there really is only one simple question that needs answering: will media regulation remain voluntary, as it is now, or will all newspapers be covered?
Regardless of the various carrots and sticks that maybe proposed in a new regulatory model, without the sanction of law, it is all still voluntary. If a newspaper proprietor does not want to participate, they don’t have to, and that is that.
This is the Guardian’s position.
After all the evidence has been heard, the excruciating tales of victims such as the Dowlers, revelations of how the tentacles of pervasive press power were wrapped around politicians and police alike, after millions of pounds of tax payers’ money has been spent on a massive public inquiry, the Guardian’s considered view is that the current voluntary approach to regulation for the press is just fine.
The stench of hypocrisy reeks.
This is the paper that has been the most voluble in calling for increased regulation following scandals in others sectors.
Politicians? Yes, after the expenses debacle an independent statutory regulator was absolutely needed. The city of London? Yes, after the crash the banks desperately need much stronger regulation backed by new laws. The media? Er, no not quite, after the hacking revelations there are obviously lots of very serious issues and some people behaved very badly but we’re sure no one will do anything so mean again so why not give voluntary regulation one more go?
The Guardian is displaying the worst kind of regulatory nimbyism. At least with the massed ranks of the right wing press there is some consistency. The Daily Mail and Telegraph are rarely at the front of the pack calling for increased regulation.
The editorial has gone down like a cup of cold sick at the paper.
Its own journalists were already kicking against the equivocation emanating from senior management in recent weeks. There have been anguished internal meetings with the senior journalists making the case for the paper to take a more robust pro-reform position.
This will only get worse when the Leveson report is released. It’s hard to see how the likes of Polly Toynbee, Jackie Ashley and Seamus Milne can just meekly accept the paper’s position and retain any semblance of credibility.
Insiders at the Guardian worry about an internal civil war. The cost cutting is already hitting hard; capitulating on Leveson and betraying what is seen to be one of the main reasons for working at the Guardian – its principled campaigning – will exacerbate a very difficult internal situation.
Big decisions define a brand. When Gordon Brown bottled the 2007 election he re-defined himself as weak and indecisive. When the Guardian pursued hacking it built and bolstered its brand.
By rejecting what is likely to be the central tenet of Lord Leveson’s proposals, the Guardian is trashing much of what it is meant to stand for.
Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut