Fear and loathing in Fleet Street

Hysteria in the press village. Cartoon by The Week

Party leaders sign late night agreement… Hysteria grips Fleet Street…. Press barons roll out big guns

A deal signed at 2.30 am in David Milibands office have brought the political establishment in Westminster together on a common platform but split the press. After over a hundred hours of talks and equally many KitKats and coffees, the parties finally found common ground.

Britain’s largest newspaper groups have decided to oppose the deal struck between the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour on the future of press regulation. The four groups, Murdoch’s News International, the Barclay brothers(Daily Telegraph), Richard Desmond(Daily Express) and the Mail group have according to reports taken legal advice today on wether they can mount a challenge to the politicians new press watchdog plans in the courts. The press barons are raging because they were left out of the crucial talks and negotiations in the wake of the Leveson report.

Prime Minister David Cameron have the last months ridden two horses, trying to please both the influential press barons and the public. The new deal is a u-turn on his earlier statements that a new press regulator would not need a statutory basis.

The deal was hammered out at the Labour opposition’s HQ by leader of the opposition David Miliband, Deputy PM Nick Clegg, Cameron’s representative Oliver Letwin and four members of the Hacked Off campaign group. After Cameron briskly walked out of the negotiations last week it seemed like Miliband took over the show and crafted a framework with leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg.

The new press watchdog is set to be formed by a royal charter and underpinned by some statute. It would be voluntarily for the papers to join the new organization, and several have threatened to boycott it. We are promised that the new body will be much better than the dysfunctional PCC and have the ability to hand out fat fines and make the papers print prominent apologies.

Fears of front page apologies and million-pound fines have brought the Fleet Street banshees out in the open, raving and screaming. According to the right wing press, fundamental press freedoms are at risk, even the freedom of speech is under threat. If the royal charter is not stopped, Britain will join the likes of Zimbabwe and Belarus on the press freedom rankings, they warn. The Moral sword swinging have been high lately as boys like Churchill and Orwell have found themselves quoted on campaigning front pages. They are likely turning in their graves as the hacking of phones and other dirty tricks was hardly what they intended to defend.

The press is shrinking in size, circulation falls every day and newspapers struggle to make money in a new digital world. But they still have significantly influence in British society, and the debate over new press regulation is a debate over how much power media owners can gather in their hands. When Cameron walked out of the talks, he signaled he was siding with the press barons and was willing to let them continue as before. It looked like he was heading for defeat in the commons as Miliband and Clegg agreed and about 20 Tory MPs was ready to rebel.

A press out of control is not the same as a free press. Media is essential to a democratic society and private interests can not be allowed to acquire unlimited shares of the media pie. We need the press to challenge those with power, not to be a megaphone for them.

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