David Cameron’s declaration of solidarity with the press initially seemed straightforward, but the pressure is already mounting
Those who rely on their political compasses for navigation will find that the needle is spinning wildly. Look at Friday’s Daily Mirror, finding itself siding with David Cameron over the issue of the Leveson inquiry. “The Mirror is Labour’s friend, but we refuse to swallow the party line,” the paper wrote in its leader, noting that it had once, maybe twice, agreed with the Tory leader before. George Eustice, a thoughtful Conservative, is routinely criticised by Daily Telegraph writers for his support for a statutory backstop to a press regulator. Post-Leveson, there is a clear divide: Cameron and the press against Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband and some of the best-known victims of press intrusion. It may be convenient for Fleet Street to believe that its governance is of no wider consequence, but when party leaders are so markedly split, citizens are likely to form a view.
Credit for getting us to this point should go to a masterly campaign run by Lord Black, from Telegraph towers, Guto Harri, the fast-rising spin doctor at News International, and the conspiracy theorists who run the Daily Mail. Its simple, one-point, anti-legislation message gave Cameron an easy decision on Leveson Day: Do I back my papers (who in the case of the Mail and Telegraph have been notably scratchy since Leveson was first unveiled)? Or do I side with the soon-to-be-forgotten judge, whose subtle and lengthy report contains all sorts of coded criticisms of tabloid publishers – and News International in particular? But then who wants to dwell on those.
It would compelling, too, if it were as simple as that. Government influence in the press is without question unattractive, which is why it is surprising that papers are so prepared to tolerate the leadership of two Tory lords ( Black and Hunt) over at the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). Why has it fallen to them to be in charge of regulatory reform, when they take the whip of the governing party? What sort of independence is that? After all, the position they have adopted is the one now conveniently adopted by the prime minister.
So, despite the success of the anti-legislation campaign, the obvious solution is to plot a way forward under revised management. But already, in some quarters, gentle threats are being uttered by publishers: don’t rock the boat and complain about Black. It might look petulant. Progress might be impeded if there is an extended search for a chair of the successor to the PCC, and Hunt is eager to push things along as ministers cry for action in “weeks”, and in so doing validate his position. Yet the smart thing to do would be to start at the top, with the appointment of an independent chair with the remit to build a new regulatory body along the lines proposed by Leveson but without the statute. And in any structure, having an effective leader is far more important than having the best organogram.
The question is, who on earth would want to take on the task? Even Michael Grade, who might be qualified, although probably not enthusiastic, is a Tory peer now. But to not change risks further pressure – a rupture with the Lib Dems and Labour in an already highly politicised environment. On current polls, Labour, at least, is a party that may yet form a government in less than three years; a period, incidentally, in which the trials of certain former newspaper editors will have occurred.
It would be pointless, then, to win a battle over press reform now, only to lose it in the near future because the subject became a pre-election political issue. Cameron has sided with the press for now, but the verdict of this week could yet be reversed if the next step of reform process is pushed on by the same gang that got us this far.