Warm words from Fraser Nelson and the Spectator is about as clear as signals get in the post-Leveson tussle over whether, and to what extent, an organ of state should oversee the regulation of the press. The magazine has made very clear that it has made a mission of defying any attempt to bring the media to heel – regardless of the penalties politicians might put in place.
So this morning’s praise for Sajid Javid is noteworthy. It comes after an interview the new Culture Secretary gave to the Times (who also praised him in an editorial pointedly titled ‘Democratic Culture’ (£)) in which he appeared to declare an end to the government’s attempts to harry the press pack into the pen that is the Royal Charter. Instead, he claims that “the most important thing has got to be that the press is respected for the role they’ve played”, and that as far as his department is decided “the work has been done” on press regulation and it is up to the press themselves how they proceed.
More, he extolls at length the virtues of a free press, claiming that Britain “has benefited hugely over the ages from having a press that is vibrant and fearless”. He adds that “notwithstanding the fact that any industry has its bad apples, I think our press is the best in the world. It is fearless without favour.”
This is, or at least appears to be, a dramatic shift in tone from his predecessor. Maria Miller was fixed in the imaginations of the anti-Leveson press as a handmaiden of authoritarianism after her advisor Joanna Hindley “flagged up” her role in drawing up state regulation to a Telegraph journalist investigating her expenses. The Times in particular seems keen to emphasise the distinction: in their interview Javid defended the press’ investigations into Mrs Miller’s expenses, and the accompanying editorial makes the comparison in brutal terms:
“Mr Javid’s ease and honesty of manner, not to mention his impressively meritocratic biography, cannot fail to command respect. It has been said that the Tories have looked short on next generation talent — Mr Javid’s rise suggests otherwise. Maria Millar [sic], he ain’t.”
So Sajid Javid’s stance on press regulation seems to be very clear, and will have won him important allies in the centre-right press and beyond. Less clear is David Cameron’s position. Nelson writes that only in December was Cameron signalling that the press may ‘regret’ its defiance of the Royal Charter, as the alternative would be some more comprehensive regulatory regime overseen by Labour and their collaborators at the Guardian.
Does his appointment of Mr Javid indicate a change in tack? It’s hard to say – the Prime Minister fought hard to keep Maria Miller in post, after all, and there were many other considerations in play than her replacement’s stance on a controversial yet dormant issue. Perhaps it is simply recognition that the Tory leader has better things to do than make enemies of the right-wing press twelve months from a general election.