LOL – now he knows what it means – must have been David Cameron’s reaction after reading Lord Leveson’s report on the culture, practice and ethics of the UK press. First came an audible sigh of relief over the vindication of his own reputation, which– despite inappropriate platonic text dalliance with La Brooks, now awaiting Her Majesty’s Pleasure on several criminal charges; oh, and former prime ministerial comms director Andy Coulson, let’s not forget him – received not a brickbat; then a guffaw over the exoneration of his health and former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, once he realised Leveson had whitewashed his role in the BSkyB/Murdoch saga at the expense of Hunt’s mendacious adviser, Adam Smith.
But the biggest laugh of all was surely reserved for Leveson’s keystone proposal: a statutory “underpinning” to press regulation. Over Cameron’s dead body. The introduction of any such measure, however camouflaged, would be tantamount to the Tory leader committing political suicide.
This “underpinning” business is the crux of the report, and the reason why it – like the 7 inquests into the power of the press over the last 70 years preceding it – will be kicked into the long grass as soon as dignity allows.
Let’s be quite clear. Neither Leveson nor any of the 300 or so witnesses called before the inquiry demanded explicit intervention by the state or politicians in the conduct of British newspapers. The debate is a lot more nuanced than that and concerns not whether – that is a given on all sides – but how the current, flaccid, self-regulatory apparatus – known as the Press Complaints Commission – should be given independent coercive force.
The newspaper proprietors and editors want PCC-Plus – no surprise there. While there are shades of difference between the Hunt/Black proposals (both these peers are prominent members of the PCC) and the axis represented by The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Independent, the press is united on one vital prerequisite to reform. Under no circumstances should there be any statutory element – direct or indirect – in the new, toughened regulatory framework, whatever final form it takes.
And that’s just where Leveson disagrees with them. His point is that no form of self-regulation can be credibly independent when newspaper proprietors – whatever their pious assertions about newspaper ethics in public – continue to pull the strings behind the scenes. PCC-Plus might enable them to do this in a number of ways. Though serving editors would now be excluded from any committee of the Good and the Wise, proprietors could exercise covert influence over the selection of those sitting in regulatory judgement over them through financial manipulation. One of the prime principles of self-regulation is, after all, the inalienable right of the industry being regulated to pay for its own regulation. Lack of financial love might well be shown towards any candidate considered even mildly resistant to the idea of uncurbed press freedom, in the form of a threatened funding boycott.
And that’s just for starters. What about speedy redress of wrongs? What of punishment that actually fits the crime – as opposed to a self-administered slap on the wrist, or impractically long and expensive court cases which are beyond the means of most would-be litigants?
For these and other reasons, Leveson seems to believe that only the veiled threat of statutory intervention will give the regulator the independence, public respect and muscle that is so clearly required. Most members of the public, according to recent YouGov opinion poll, agree with him. The trouble is, most of Cameron’s party – the party in power – do not. They know that the backing of newspaper proprietors can be vital to a successful election result; and, once in power, it is very difficult to succeed in the face of an unremittingly hostile press. They also know that whatever any future statute book might say, newspapers are a law unto themselves. And, when it comes down to it, they will portray legislative curbs on their activities as incipient tyranny – and brush it aside accordingly. One thing that hasn’t changed in over 70 years is the truth of then prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s observation that newspaper proprietors enjoy “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.” He was referring to Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, whose newspapers had just forced him from office. There’s still a Viscount Rothermere, but nowadays the Beaverbrook clan has been displaced by the Murdoch mafia.
So, statutory “underpinning” – forget it. As for Ofcom being allowed to do the underpinning, don’t make me laugh out loud. Ofcom is out of the frying pan into the fire, in regulatory terms. We can be certain the appointment of its executives will be untouched by the influence of press barons for one very good reason: they are picked by a minister of the crown (currently culture secretary Maria Miller). That aside, what conceivable qualification do a group of career bureaucrats have in passing judgement on press freedom?