The appearance of independence in the new press regulatory body will be impressive. But look who’s appointing the grandees that make the decisions
The peril of political ructions over the aftermath of Lord Justice Leveson’s report begins to fade a little. Hacked Off wanted a “present or former civil service commissioner” and/or “a present high judicial officer” plonked on top of the appointments body who’ll choose the successor regulatory board to the Press Complaints Commission – and lo! their demands would seem to be met in full.
The government has asked Sir David Normington, current commissioner for the civil service – and public appointments as well – to move in and approve the appointments system that emerges. He’ll need privy council assent to extend his official brief. Expect this to follow in a few days. And meanwhile Lord Phillips, former president of our supreme court and thus just about the highest former judicial officer extant, has agreed to advise on the construction and running of that selfsame appointments apparatus.
Save for adding Rowan Williams and the Archangel Gabriel, independence on the British model doesn’t come much more walloping than this. By the time Oliver Letwin at the cabinet office has thrown in his royal charter notions and the actual leader of the new press pack has strode out of the mists of selection and verification, the greatness and goodness of the entire shooting match, with or without a sliver of statute, will surely be manifest and of huge reassurance to the public. If they can understand any of it, that is.
Yet never underestimate the potential thickets, once unsullied independence is the order of the day. David Cameron wouldn’t let Ofcom do the backstop verification work because he appointed its bosses and they couldn’t be beyond political question. “Who guards the guardians?”, as Leveson asked but rather unhelpfully failed to answer. So who appoints the public appointments commissioner? The Queen – it’s a crown appointment, his office explains. But on the recommendation of the prime minister, after a duly pristine process supervised by the minister for the cabinet office.
All roads lead to Letwin then, Sir Humphrey? Yes indeed, minister. I was afraid you were going to ask me that.
? You couldn’t make it up. Robert Jay QC, chief counsel to the Leveson inquiry, travels to Singapore to tell the Law Academy there that Britain’s “unruly and irreverent” press has nothing to fear from statutory control, and to think so is “scaremongering”. Jay certainly knows how to pick his audience. Singapore currently stands at 150th in Freedom House’s world press freedom league: an obsessive wonder of manicured, ruly repression.