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  7. Alistair Carmichael and why politicians should have no part in regulation of the Press
Alistair Carmichael MP
Alistair Carmichael MP

Journalists owe a debt of gratitude to shamed Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael, but not just for making the Saturday splash an easy choice.

Obviously he and his henchman Euan Roddin gave the Daily Telegraph a pre-election boost by handing it a scoop on a plate with the leaked civil service memo about Nicola Sturgeon’s chat with the French ambassador. The fall-out filled pages for days, so thanks for that, Alistair.

But his blatant lies – going on camera to say he knew nothing about the leak while being the man who authorised it – has done the industry a much greater service; it provides a perfect justification for keeping politicians as far away from Press regulation as possible.

Politics is a murky world in which journalists are conduits for plots and wheezes to wrong-foot opponents and, just as often, to knife comrades between the shoulder-blades. In my short time in politics I was briefly on the receiving end, although the would-be assassin was not so much wielding a dirk as some nail-clippers.

For politicians and their smarty-pants side-kicks, journalists are there to be manipulated, cajoled and intimidated, while stories are planted and denied as the circumstances dictate.

Yet there are those who would still hand  politicians a key role in the regulation of the Press, giving people like Alistair Carmichael control over how news organisations should behave.

It’s the basis of the alternative newspaper regulator now being set up to rival the new Independent Press Standards Organisation, one established by politicians and ultimately controlled by them.

Known as Impress, this week it announced it will seek approval from the UK Government’s recognition panel, set up by a Royal Charter concocted by MPs to implement all the Leveson Report recommendations.

This is despite no publisher agreeing to sign up, not even the titles which have so far refused to join IPSO, most notably the Guardian, Independent and Financial Times.

Under the recently-enacted Crime and Courts Act, the carrot for agreeing to be bound by Impress is protection against excessive damages for any publisher in an officially-sanctioned system losing a defamation or privacy action.

Those news organisations outside the government-approved system could be hit by punitive damages and have to cover all costs on both sides even if the complainant lost.

The principle is not just counter to Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights, it flies in the face of natural justice for any business to be forced to foot the entire bill of an unsuccessful case

Fortunately, exemplary damages are not possible under Scots law, so it is arguable the whole principle of any financial penalty for not joining a government system supposed to be voluntary is illegal in Scotland.

So what is the difference between IPSO and Impress? As Impress also promises, IPSO has a new standards function, the power to levy fines and is now actively preparing an arbitration service, so on the face of it the two are not dissimilar.

Unlike IPSO, which is funded by newspaper and magazine companies,  Impress is funded by charitable donation from the likes of JK Rowling and the Joseph Rowntree Trust.

But crucially, the rules underpinning Impress can be changed by votes in either the Scottish or UK parliaments, thus handing ultimate control to politicians.

So supporters of Impress, like Hacked Off  founder and former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris,  would rather the Press be in the hands of people like Alistair Carmichael who are not only subjected to its rightful scrutiny but who are only too ready to manipulate it for their own ends.

This week the actions of journalists have once again been under the legal microscope, in not just one court case but four. Even judged by recent events, it’s been an extraordinary few days.

First, JK Rowling was successful in having sharp criticism of the Daily Mail read out in court for a story the paper had already admitted was inaccurate. Then £1.2m damages were awarded to eight victims of phone hacking by the Daily and Sunday Mirror, including Alan Yentob and Paul Gascoigne. The Mirror now estimates it could cost £28m to reach a final settlement with all claimants.

On Friday, Sun crime reporter Anthony France was found guilty of aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office, and the trial for perjury of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson is ongoing.

Guilty or innocent, this week’s events demonstrate that far from being a law unto themselves, journalists are just as accountable for their actions as any other member of the public.

Ever since the original convictions and jailing of News of the World pair Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire in 2006, it has been absolutely clear the courts would punish the illegal practice of intercepting private voicemails severely and those responsible would not escape with a slap on the wrist.

What is yet to be fully explained, although plenty of theories have been explored, is why the Metropolitan Police chose only to go after Mulcaire and Goodman and halted the investigation, despite the vast quantities of information uncovered.

The full extent of the practice and the lack of police action were only exposed by Guardian investigative journalist Nick Davis in 2009 and four more people were subsequently jailed.

So the situation now is that courts are hammering journalists and news organisations found to have broken the law, previously widespread practices like blagging and tip-off fees have disappeared and a much tougher system of self-regulation is in place under a no-nonsense former appeal court judge.

But it cannot be the mark of a successful regulator that all law-breaking ceases and neither, as with the PCC, is it a definition of failure if it does not.

The founders of Impress have not fully explained their attitude to one of their members (if they evert get any) falling foul of the law, by comparison with IPSO chair Sir Alan Moses who, to his credit, has publicly expressed  his view that rule-breaking is part of the warp and weft of a free press as long as those responsible also accept fair punishment is also part of the system.

As for the problem of political interference, Impress’s answer is that if politicians imposed changes it didn’t like it would dissolve itself. In other words, it would leave others to sort it out, no doubt allowing politicians to get on with imposing whatever they wanted.

That doesn’t sound much like the defence of freedom of speech and expression it claims to provide.