Putting lawyers in charge of the press regulator will lead to endless hearings and the stultified pace of the courtroom – just like the old, dismantled Press Council
Let’s leave Lord Justice Leveson well to one side as the search for “independent” worthies to police his masterplan gets under way. We don’t know how he came to be appointed head of his famous commission in the first place, or even (inns of court gossip) whether he was the lord chief justice’s first choice. But we do know that Igor Judge said he chose Sir Brian because he “believed in the freedom of the press” (which, in all logic, argues that some other high court luminaries harbour no such beliefs).
But now see the great legal carpet of opportunity unrolling. Here’s Labour’s draft Leveson implementation bill, presented by Harriet Harman (a solicitor) and Charlie Falconer (a successful barrister). It features a team of verification experts who will inspect the new press regulatory body and validate its suggested light-touch tribunal body – which, according to Leveson, will also be staffed by retired judges and retired senior barristers. And where, while we’re wading through Who’s Who, can we find an independent chairman for the whole revised shooting match?
Enter much speculation about Lord Chief Justice Judge, who retires next year. Enter Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, retired president of the supreme court, as Lord Hunt’s most prestigious adviser on what comes next. Enter a rich variety of elderly legal eagles wondering if they can roost on the board that replaces the PCC – once Hunt, a high-powered solicitor himself, steps aside. Enter a royal charter squad possibly led by the president, as opposed to past-president, of the supreme court.
And here’s the rub. For six appointments in a row the old, pre-PCC Press Council put judges and lawyers in charge. Remember Lord Devlin, Lord Pearce, Sir Shortly Floorcross et al. Did these distinguished presences mean authority and respect for the council that sought to corral Fleet Street? No. They brought lugubrious oral hearings, miasmic third-party complaints and the stultified pace of justice, leaving complainants waiting for months for any resolution. Worse, they deterred editors from playing a part in day-to-day Press Council activities because there weren’t enough hours in the day.
All these past frailties are part of the future Leveson recommends. A quarter of a century on, nobody seems to remember what went wrong last time.
This swing of the pendulum, indeed, is more violent than ever, prompting editors to open a debate on the “public interest” with legal advisers every time they get a complex story to pursue – one short step from making lawyers the de facto editors of the future. But hey! there’ll be no great problems over that at the next inns of court or Law Society dinner. Blame the departing PCC because too many Tory peers took its helm. But beware parallel disillusion as the next great legal gravy train comes roaring down the track.