As the Leveson proposals split the party leaders, newspapers have a final opportunity to prove a law is not needed
I hear Australia is nice at this time of the year. It must certainly be a more pleasant climate for Brian Leveson, who left for the other side of the world as soon as he had unveiled his opus about the British press, rather than stay here to listen to David Cameron lavish thanks on the Lord Justice for all his labours, speak of his boundless admiration for the report’s principles, before going on to explain that the prime minister had no intention of implementing the central proposal.
Imagine we were talking about a 16-month, £5m, government-commissioned inquiry into abuses perpetrated by doctors or lawyers or members of the armed forces. Imagine that this inquiry had catalogued repeated illegality, systematic breaches of the profession’s codes, the corruption of public officials, the compromising of political integrity and outrageous misconduct that had maimed innocent lives. Imagine that the report had arrived at the verdict that, while this profession mostly “serves the country well”, significant elements of it were “exercising unaccountable power”.
Imagine the prime minister who had set up that inquiry then responded that it was all very interesting, with much in it to commend, but he was going to park this report on the same dusty shelf that already groans with seven previous inquiries and allow this disgraced bunch one more chance to regulate themselves. We know what would be happening now. The newspapers would be monstering the prime minister as the most feeble creature ever to darken the door of Number 10. But since this is about the newspapers themselves, David Cameron has received some of the most adulatory headlines of his seven years as Tory leader. “Cam backs a free press,” cheers the Mirror, for once in full agreement with the Daily Mail, which salutes as “Cameron leads the fight for liberty”, and the Daily Telegraph, which hails “Cameron’s Stand For Freedom” and the Sun, which stands to “applaud David Cameron’s courage in resisting Lord Leveson”. The prime minister’s staffers are chuckling that he has generated some of his most glowing headlines by rejecting the cornerstone recommendation of his own inquiry.
If you can briefly suspend your cynicism about the whole thing and block your ears to the sound and fury that has accompanied the publication of Leveson, you’ll see a fairly broad consensus about what needs to be done. Across the political parties and in much of the press there is considerable agreement that the report’s principles are generally sound and many of the proposed remedies are sensible. The stark division is over whether it needs law – “statutory underpinning” in the rather hideous jargon – to put those principles into practice. As Nick Clegg rightly observed to MPs, it is an argument about “means” rather than “ends”. The battle is no less fierce for that. And no less infected with some base motivation, among both politicians and the press, about what best serves their interests. In rejecting any legislation, even along the modest lines proposed by the judge to guarantee the independence of the regulator and compliance with its judgments, there is both liberal Tory conviction and low calculation at work in the mind of David Cameron.
The prime minister took this position conscious that he would fail the “Milly Dowler test” that he originally set and later came to regret once its implications sank in. “We knew DC would be accused of betrayal,” says one of his senior aides and so he has been by many of the victims of press abuses. He’s taken a calibrated gamble that it is better to be attacked for breaking previous promises to implement Leveson than to engage in a protracted fight with the national press on an issue over which his own party is divided.
By taking the opposite view and backing the judge’s opinion that regulation will not be robust or durable without some statute, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg expose themselves to being pilloried by the same newspapers, which is a bit of a risk, but not that large a one since those papers habitually either ignore or trash them anyway. Every leader builds a story in which he is the hero of his own narrative. For Mr Miliband, one of his defining moments was leading the charge against Rupert Murdoch and that spurs him to take the uncompromising stance on Leveson he talks to us about today. The Labour leader was a bit rash when he initially pledged himself to support the report’s proposals “in their entirety” before he could have possibly read all 1,987 pages of the heavy tome. He has now drawn back from that somewhat, joining those who had immediate reservations that the recommendations about the application of data protection legislation could have a chilling effect on investigative journalism in the public interest. But his overall position remains inflexible.
Nick Clegg’s stance is more nuanced as he tries to seek a solution that both guarantees the freedom of the press and the right of innocent people not to be wronged. Some found it remarkable that David Cameron’s statement to the Commons was followed by a conflicting one from the Lib Dem leader. I thought it was a mature way of handling the differences between the prime minister and his deputy. Better, surely, than sending out their spinners to brief against each other.
In theory, Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg have the numbers in Parliament to force through a press law against the opposition of the Conservative party. In practice, this is highly unlikely. The Labour and Lib Dem positions are similar, but not identical. The Lib Dems will probably not react well to the threat by the Labour leader to “pull the plug” on cross-party talks unless they very rapidly produce a legislative proposal. While Mr Miliband is convinced that nothing less than a new law will do, Mr Clegg is a bit more open to persuasion that it might not be absolutely necessary.
It was one thing for Mr Clegg to make a parallel statement to Mr Cameron. The coalition can survive that. It would be quite another for the Lib Dems to engage in detailed co-operation with Labour to try to push through legislation against the wishes of the prime minister and most Conservatives, the largest party in both the Commons and the government. I just don’t think that is going to happen and neither, privately, do senior Labour people.
So we will now see what one member of the cabinet calls a “beauty contest” between those who want a press law and those who don’t. I’m not sure that’s an appropriate metaphor given the contestants, but this is what he means. Those who think a statute is essential to prevent future abuses will need to show us what it would look like and how legislation could protect the innocent without compromising the freedom of the press. A battle is already being waged within government about the draft law being written inside the Department of the Culture, Media and Sport.
When Maria Miller, the culture secretary, gave interviews saying the purpose of this exercise was to show why a law wouldn’t work, I am told that Nick Clegg “got very heavy with her”. The Lib Dem leader has assured colleagues that he will be “crawling all over it” to ensure this is a proper attempt to draft a workable law. Yet within Number 10, it remains the view that they will publish a law simply to demonstrate why it shouldn’t be enacted. According to a senior member of the prime minister’s team: “When people have looked at all the pages, all the amendable clauses and all the appendices, they will see why David came to the conclusion that a press law is a bad idea.”
This deadlock among the politicians creates space for a case to be made by those who contend that it doesn’t require legislation to guarantee truly independent and rigorous regulation of the press. Newspapers themselves have the biggest incentive to prove that it can be done. If they are serious, they will have to do a lot better than the so-called Hunt-Black plan, authored by two Tory peers in a belated attempt to pre-empt statutory regulation, which comes nowhere near meeting the test because it would leave the invigilation of the press essentially in its own hands, a privilege enjoyed by no other power in society, including MPs. To have a hope of gaining the confidence of the politicians and the public, the press will have to do much, much better than offer a mildly beefed-up version of the miserably ineffective, hopelessly compromised, utterly discredited Press Complaints Commission.
Leveson rightly called for regulation that was independent of both proprietors and editors and politicians and government. He was correct again when he insisted that there has to be swift, affordable and meaningful redress for those who have been wronged and penalties with bite for those who transgress. The British press has been given what may be a very last opportunity to show that it doesn’t need a law to stop sections of Panorama behaving as if they were beyond the law.
All of us who work in newspapers should be acutely conscious that this is a chance that many of our fellow citizens think is utterly undeserved.
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