The press eminence grise came up with a powerful campaign against state regulation of the press that persuaded many MPs
There is rarely a consensus among national newspapers. So the Friday-morning editorials in response to the Leveson report were a rare example of widespread agreement among editors from the right, left and centre of the political spectrum.
How odd to see the Daily Mail and the Independent taking roughly the same line, not to mention the Daily Mirror lining up with the Sun, and the Daily Telegraph responding in like mind with the Financial Times.
The upmarket and mid-market titles and the red-tops were united in their defence of liberty, often citing the same figures from history – Thomas Jefferson, John Milton and John Wilkes – while noting the date, 1695, when official censorship under the licensing order of 1643 finally lapsed.
A coincidence? Maybe. We certainly cannot overlook self-interest as the reason for everyone thinking alike. It must also be admitted that both the concept and the practice of press freedom remain dear to the hearts of publishers and editors. It is, or should be, part of every journalist’s DNA.
But we should not ignore other forces at work in the debate that raged in the weeks leading up to the revelation of Lord Justice Leveson’s plan for a reformed system of press regulation, which has continued in the days since.
One clue came at the Leveson lock-in – the arrangement that allowed journalists the chance to see the report in advance – when one of the participants was overheard telling a colleague: “I just have to say one of two words to my newsdesk – yes or no.”
In other words, despite being presented with a 2,000-page report following evidence from more than 600 witnesses during deliberations stretching back more than a year, the whole matter was reduced to a simple, and simplistic, single question – would Leveson plump for some form of statutory regulation or not?
The yes answer was therefore relayed to their offices by the scores of newspaper and broadcasting correspondents huddled over the report’s summary, though not as rapidly as executives might have expected. Leveson had disguised the statutory element so well that it took many minutes before we readers cottoned on, and longer still for us to grasp its complexity.
This not only served as a reminder of the judge’s subtlety, but also revealed how a complicated issue has been reduced to black and white. Or should that be Black and white?
Given the sudden eruption in certain newspapers of conspiracy theories about one of Leveson’s assessors it would be foolish to construct one from the other side, so to speak.
But Guy Black, Lord Black of Brentwood, executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, is no ordinary publishing executive. He did not get where he is today as the newspaper industry’s eminence grise par excellence by accident.
He combines acute intelligence, political nous and a talent for debating, plus silky diplomatic skills that make him a formidable networker.
As director of the Press Complaints Commission from 1996 until 2003, he successfully guided it through a series of crises. After an unhappy period as director of communications for the Conservative party and press secretary to Michael Howard, he joined the Telegraph group in 2005 at a difficult time for the company. He proved indispensable.
He soon became a member of the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBof), the body responsible for funding and overseeing the PCC, and assumed the chairmanship in 2009.
Black is a problem solver and it was unsurprising that in the wake of the phone-hacking saga, and the consequent impossibility of keeping the PCC on the road, he took the leading role in sorting out the mess.
He found another Tory peer, Lord (David) Hunt, to act as an interim PCC chair after the hapless Lady Buscombe had departed. Then, in company with Hunt, he set about constructing a new system of self-regulation. There were many difficulties, not least the need to encourage the Express Newspapers proprietor, Richard Desmond, to come aboard after having previously walked away from the PCC. Wisely, aware of Desmond’s antagonism towards him, he left that job to Hunt.
Black’s contract plan, a clever mechanism designed to avoid statutory involvement by relying on civil law, was largely welcomed by the industry. Regional and magazine publishers were relaxed about it, although it should be added that they do not see themselves as a regulatory problem.
Some national newspaper publishers, including the Guardian, were unsure about it because it appeared too similar to the PCC, most obviously because PressBof was to be reconstituted with a new title. The purse-strings and the key decisions would remain in the industry’s hands.
But there was a general agreement that if anyone could make it fly with Leveson, then Black was the man. In fact, when he appeared before the inquiry in July this year, he found himself answering some sticky questions from the lead counsel, Robert Jay QC.
He defended his contract plan as “extremely tough” and “robust” while asserting that any statutory element would compromise freedom of the press. “Self-regulation is the guarantor of press freedom and [against] interference from state control,” he said.
Black stood his ground throughout but it was clear to those who know him that he was unusually rattled. In fairness, he faced an obvious difficulty – it was impossible to guarantee comprehensive industry support without drawing up a final contract.
He had, as Leveson readily agreed, done a huge amount of work to get it to the skeleton stage. But the judge appeared to be damning it with faint praise, and Black realised as much.
After the July appearance, though Black did not give up on his project, he didn’t attempt to advance it either. Nor did he take on board the increasing concerns of those editors who felt it insufficiently independent to command public backing. By this time, Labour and Lib Dem politicians were also airing their objections.
Despite robust support for the contract idea from the Telegraph and the Mail titles, and the definite desire of all editors to avoid statutory underpinning, Black appeared to change tack.
He was always conscious that he could tweak his plan at a future stage but also realised that it was better not to continue getting bogged down in the detail. Leveson would no longer be listening anyway. Instead, it made more sense to reduce the argument to one around the core principle of press freedom. And it also meant moving the argument into the political arena.
Influencing politicians, most obviously the prime minister, became of overriding importance. To accomplish that task, it was necessary to form some kind of press freedom campaign. Step forward Peter Wright, the former Mail on Sunday editor, and Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors. They helped to stitch together the Free Speech Network, drawing on the support of editors across Britain and abroad.
After its launch in October, its website was soon urging passing surfers to contact their MPs in order to bang home the straightforward message: “Say no to state control of the press”. It could well have said: “Say no to Leveson.”
Its slogan proved powerful enough to persuade some Tory MPs who originally thought the statutory route might be acceptable to change their minds. It could well have bolstered David Cameron in his wish to avoid legislating against the wishes of the press.
But has Black now backed himself into a corner? Will the industry be happy for him and his sidekick, Hunt, to concoct yet another self-regulator by adopting some of Leveson and part of their old plan? Then again, what’s the alternative? Black is still the newspaper publishers’ go-to man, is he not?