The full spectrum of argument over the future of the Press after Leveson was thrashed out at a London Press Club debate in the historic setting of Stationers’ Hall.
Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer and Sun managing editor Stig Abell gave impassioned reasons why the Royal Charter was wrong because it could lead to Government intervention and damage the freedom of the Press.
Jonathan Heawood who founded IMPRESS with a mantra of a regulation watchdog separate from the Press argued that IPSO – the new independent body proposed by publishers – was doomed to fail. He said the Press would still be marking their own homework.
The audience at the debate held jointly by the London Press Club and the Stationers and Newspapermakers were after hearing the arguments invited by moderator Doug Wills to take part in an ‘unscientific Any Questions-style’ poll.
Asked who thought that the Royal Charter was the best option, only three of the capacity crowd at Stationers’ Hall raised their hands. IPSO, the new independent body proposed by publishers, proved considerably more popular, with around 30 arms being thrust up. But that still left a silent majority who remained undecided on this complicated issue.
Wills, who helmed the debate in his role as chairman of the London Press Club, revealed that Hacked Off had been invited to participate, but had declined.
First up was Heffer. “I’m delighted to be here but depressed to be having this conversation,” adding that the idea of any kind of state regulation of the press would have been unthinkable when he began his career. “I’m viscerally opposed to state regulation – it last occurred when we were hanging people round the corner at Newgate.” Heffer’s robust defence of his industry was summed up in his remark: “If you want to live in a free country you have to have a free press.”
Coming from a different angle – yet still opposed to the Royal Charter and state regulation – was Heawood, founding director of the IMPRESS (Independent Monitor for the Press) Project. IMPRESS aims to develop an independent self-regulator for the UK Press. “The continuation of pure self-regulation – as represented by IPSO – is doomed to fail,” Heawood told the audience, adding that the idea of a two-tiered ‘double firewall’ was one of the best raised during the Leveson inquiry. “
Abell was well placed to discuss the issue at hand, given both his current role as managing editor of the UK’s most popular newspaper and his previous one as director of the PCC. He said there was not enough focus on the positibve things that journalism does and addressed the “snobbishness” when it comes toi tabloids, with newspapers there to perform a wide range of functions. “I’m always suspicious of people who start a sentence with ‘I believe in freedom of expression’ – usually followed by a pause then a ‘but’,” he said, to knowing laughter from the crowd.
Telegraph deputy editor Liz Hunt addressed Prime Minister David Cameron saying: “You either support a free press of you don’t”. She told how her paper had led opposition to the Royal Charter, adding: “I find the merest hint of state control to be abhorrent.”
Bob Satchwell, former regional editor and now of the Society of Editors, pointed out that his time at the News of the World was “pre-mobile phones!”. “It’s the stories that the press now don’t do that is at the heart of the matter – Leveson has caused a chill,” he added.
The fact that the press now operates in a world totally transformed by the internet and social media was also raised. Abell raised the fact that some celebraties now have Twitter followings that far outrank newspaper circulations but do niot face the same restrictions. Satchwell pointed out that while circulations were down readership was up. “The system should be voluntary and platform-neutral,” said Heawood.
The sold-out event was part of Stationers’ DMG Roundtable series and was sponsored by ŠKODA as part of the award-winning carmaker’s year-long agreement with the London Press Club.
Next up for the Press Club is Are we Twitchy for a New Twitter? What’s Next in Social Media in partnership with Editorial Intelligence, featuring India Knight, Harry Cole and Sky News’ John McAndrew. Spaces are limited but London Press Club members can reserve a place by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.