When Lord Leveson, in delivering his 2,000 page report, said yesterday that there had been no less than seven inquiries into the press in the last 70 years, he hoped that there would not be an eighth. Despite the sensible and pragmatic tenour of the report, the Prime Minister’s hasty rejection of the legislative under-pinning that Lord Leveson regards as essential, makes the odds on that eighth inquiry in a decade’s time a little shorter.
The report is a shocking indictment of ‘the culture, practices and ethics’ of a large section of the press – a long catalogue of the abuse of power, damaging to individuals who have suffered, as well as to the press itself and the last remnants of trust between it and the public.
A few weeks ago a Director General of the BBC was forced to fall on his sword because of an alleged ‘lack of curiosity’ in what some of his staff were up to. But the senior managements of several of our large newspaper organisations have demonstrated a much more profound and systemic lack of curiosity not only in what their own staffs were up to over a long period of time, but also in the ethical standards that should underpin their industry. The lack of managerial curiosity has ended with wrecked lives and a coach load of employees facing criminal charges. The equally culpable lack of wider self-examination – often glibly justified by reference to journalism being a ‘rough old trade’ – just won’t do, not least in a period of intense concentration of media power.
The first reports into the press date from before the Second World War. After that war Royal Commissions followed in 1949, 1962, 1977. Two ‘Calcutt’ inquiries followed in 1991 and 1993. On each occasion promises of reform faded into the long grass, soon to be completely lost from view. As the Media Standards Trust said in its evidence to the Leveson inquiry, “The phrase ‘last chance saloon’ when used with regard to the British Press, has attained the status of parody.”
The biggest concern about David Cameron’s statement is that it might presage another repeat of this cycle. With both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband arguing that Leveson’s recommendations should be adopted in their entirety, the prospects for cross-party agreement seem slim. We should all worry.
Leveson himself could not have been clearer about the value of a free press:
“I remain, as I started, firmly of the belief that the British press – all of it – serves the country very well, for the vast majority of the time. There are truly countless examples of great journalism, great investigations and great campaigns…The press describes world and local events, illuminates political issues and politics generally, holds power to account challenges authority, investigates and provides a forum for debate.”
Neither was he in any way snobbish about the tabloid press:
“It is not necessary for the press always to be pursuing serious stories for it to be working in the public interest. Some of its most important functions are to inform, educate and entertain and, when doing so to be irreverent, unruly and opinionated.”
But, as well all know, the evidence he has heard has exposed the dark side:
“There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist. This has caused real hardship and, on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained. This is not just the famous but ordinary members of the public, caught up in events (many of them truly tragic) far larger than they could cope with but made much, much worse by press behaviours that, at times, can only be described as outrageous.”
Most importantly, he has rejected the ‘rotten apple’ argument that this behaviour was an aberration by a few. But the response of the industry itself has been all too predictable.
Newspaper owners, whose own proposals for reform were decisively rejected by Lord Leveson as inadequate, have become increasingly hysterical in their response to the issue. They have been intent on scaring government and public away from any use of legislation in this field. And yet it is just that, a scare story. The difference between statutory regulation and self-regulation under-pinned by statute has been deliberately elided.
Leveson has gone as far as to propose a legal duty on the government to protect the freedoms of the press – a gain in itself. He is clear that he wants effective, independent self-regulation, but equally clear that it cannot be realised without legislation. But the sole role of statute would be to validate that independent system – making sure it is an effective alternative, in Leveson’s own words, to the industry ‘marking its own homework’. There are plenty of models for this backstop role, such as the Legal Services Board set up under the Legal Services Act 2007 or the Securities and Investment Board that relies on the Financial Services Act 1986.
Opponents of any legislative under-pinning, such as the Prime Minister, tell us that we are crossing a Rubicon that has been uncrossed for 300 years. That is a mirage. There are countless laws that affect the press, not least the laws of libel for which this country is ill-renowned. But that legislative backstop will make a huge difference. It will ensure that large news organisations cannot walk away from self-regulation – as Express Newspapers did. It will ensure that the processes of self-regulation are properly audited, so that the public can see that they are working. But most of all it should, over time, ensure that all news organisations are forced to think more deeply about the culture, practices and ethics that shape the exercise of their large, and some would say, excessive power.