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To my surprise, I find myself agreeing with Clegg and Miliband about Leveson: Cameron looks as though he is intent on undermining the whole thing

But this is a very long report: it needs to be read and re-read carefully by everyone involved before any legislation is enacted. But this operation mustn’t be allowed to fail

By on Friday, 30 November 2012

Lord Justice Leveson with his report (Photo: PA)

Lord Justice Leveson with his report (Photo: PA)

What I had expected to be writing this morning about Leveson is very different from how it all seems to be coming out, having heard Leveson himself actually announce his proposals. I had supposed that I would be writing of the Leveson inquiry as being the latest example of what has long seemed to me to be a ruinously expensive and on the whole pernicious phenomenon: the judge-led inquiry, appointed by a Prime Minister in political trouble in order to kick his problems into the long grass.

The results of these inquiries are often quietly shelved on their completion: but there was never any realistic prospect that that would happen to this one. To get himself out of one hole, Mr Cameron unwisely (so I thought) appointed someone who proceeded to dig a much deeper one for him to fall into, a hole, furthermore, in which I thought we might all dangerously find ourselves. The danger which I thought then that I would be warning against is exactly the same one the Prime Minister is in the fullness of time himself now warning against; take Leveson straight rather than watered down, he is saying, and we all “cross the rubicon” towards introducing statutory regulation, even licensing, of the Press, an interference with Press freedom which will in the end threaten all our liberties.

These anxieties had all been spelled out in a letter from a long list of Parliamentarians published in the Telegraph and the Guardian two days before the report’s publication:

“With the publication of the Leveson report on Thursday it is clear that the central issue will be whether the press should, for the first time, be subjected to statutory regulation or have the opportunity to put in place a new system of binding self-regulation.

“As Parliamentarians, we believe in free speech and are opposed to the imposition of any form of statutory control even if it is dressed up as underpinning. It is redress that is vital not broader regulation.

“The prospect of drafting legislation may have the dual benefit of exposing the dangers of the statutory regulation and at the same time focus the minds of those seeking to further strengthen the existing tough independent proposals.

“No form of statutory regulation of the press would be possible without the imposition of state licensing – abolished in Britain in 1695. State licensing is inimical to any idea of press freedom and would radically alter the balance of our unwritten constitution.”

There’s more, but that’s the nub of it. And now that Leveson has actually made his recommendations, some of those who signed this letter are already saying that his proposals are just what they were all afraid of. The list of names signing it included many of the Parliamentarians from all parties whose views I normally most respect. They include David Blunkett, Baroness Boothroyd, Julian Brazier, Bill Cash, David Davis, Lord Fellowes, Liam Fox, Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Baroness Neville-Jones, John Redwood, Gisela Stuart, Lord Trimble, Lord Wakeham, Lord Coe and Lord Tebbit. Some of these have already come out to deny in forthright terms Leveson’s claim that his recommendation for a law “underpinning” an independent press regulator “is not and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation”.

“Really?” sneered Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator; “He asks government to set the parameters under which the press will operate, and to punish the press if it fails to comply. No matter how Lord Justice Leveson presented it, he was proposing a form of state licensing of the press. And David Cameron was not fooled for a minute”.

But hang on: is that what Leveson was doing? Against what I would have thought would be my inclinations at this point, I find myself wondering about this. These are the main proposals in this area, as provided with bullet points by the Telegraph

• An independent regulator with the power to fine newspapers up to £1 million or one per cent of turnover for breaching a code of conduct.
• The new regulator is to be underpinned by statute to “protect the freedom of the press, to reassure the public and validate the new body”.
• Ofcom to carry out reviews every two years of how the new regulator is working and to act as backstop watchdog if publishers refuse to sign up to the new body.
• The Information Commissioner to be given greater powers to prosecute newspapers for breaches of data protection.

Where does it say the government will punish newspapers who transgress? Maybe it’s somewhere in the report itself. I haven’t read this 2,000 word tome, and I don’t suppose most of those now denouncing it have either. These are my first impressions; maybe on reflection my views will change.

All I know is that to my great astonishment, when I heard what seemed to me to be the Prime Minister’s effective demolition of any hope of making Leveson actually work in practice my heart sank, and when I then heard Nick Clegg saying that “we need to get on with this without delay” to ensure “that press laws protect victims”, and going on to declare that “He [Lord Leveson] has found that changing the law is the only way to guarantee a system of self-regulation which seeks to cover all of the press”, and that “changing the law is the only way to give us all the assurance that the new regulator isn’t just independent for a few months or years, but is independent for good”, I have to say that I found him unusually persuasive. I also thought Miliband made sense in his speech arguing for MPs to “put their trust in Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations” and for the proposals to be accepted in full.

I don’t believe that without legislation of some kind to encourage it, the press will ever get its act together to set up some kind of genuinely independent regulator which “has teeth”. Parts of the report will undoubtedly emerge which cannot be accepted as they stand. Fraser Nelson pointed one out: “Some publications, like The Spectator, would not sign up to state regulation on a point of principle. We’d consequently be punished by the threat of having to pay legal costs, even in successful court cases. We could, say, expose a terrorist front operating in London and be sued. And even if we won, we’d have to pay costs that could threaten to bankrupt the magazine.

“Even the Deputy Prime Minister, I understand, realises that this would only discourage the very investigative journalism that Lord Justice Leveson says he so admires. But it remains odd that the leader of the Liberal Democrats wants to regulate the press: one would have thought that the clue was in his party’s name.”

One part of the Prime Minister’s speech should be supported; his plea to do what has to be done with great care, not charging into a knee-jerk implementation of the full report without its full implications having become absolutely clear. Any legislation will have to iron out inequities like the one described by Fraser Nelson. This is a massive document which clearly ought to be taken very seriously indeed, but which needs to be calmly assessed. The problems posed by the press behaviour, especially by some tabloids, of the irresponsibility, even cruelty, that we have witnessed over the last few years have to be addressed firmly and effectively. We cannot let it continue. This time, it has to work: there must be no more defenceless victims. Mr Cameron’s caution is necessary, up to a point. But it should not be such that it undermines the whole operation. That is the danger now.

  • Michael d’Arcy

    Why should there be a statutory regulator?

    We already have criminal laws in the UK – much of the despicable behaviour highlighted in the Leveson Enquiry was covered by that and should have been (and, in some cases, is being) prosecuted. We have laws against harassment, and we also have privacy laws. Some, indeed, would say that the UK’s privacy laws, informed by rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, are already too protective of those who would rather their activities did not come to light, but we’ll let that pass for now. The point is that the tools already exist to limit and punish behaviour of the type that has caused such distress to many people over the past few years. Rightly so, as in a for-profit industry, which the media is, there will always be the temptation to do whatever is necessary to sell copies, regardless of the morality.

    Against this legal backdrop, I don’t see the need for a statutory regulator. If what is proposed is a first port-of-call, like an ombudsman, which might deal with a complaint in the first instance, enable arbitration, and even take a victim’s part in subsequent litigation (especially when that victim might otherwise be denied recourse to the courts because of the expense) then that could be very good, and I would accept it.

    However, if what is proposed goes further then I am against it. A body established by statute is ultimately accountable to Parliament. for example, Ofcom as a body is a statutory creature, operating under the Communications Act 2003. Thus if there is a statutory regulatory body then it will ultimately be for Parliament to decide how regulation of the press is to operate, and for Parliament to determine what types of behaviour are to be regarded as meriting sanction.

    If the state-determined “objectionable behaviour” is hacking phones then nearly everyone would find sanction unobjectionable. But we already have the criminal law to deal with that. What if the behaviour is “causing distress” to those who disagree with a particular view? To take a current example, what if the common consensus becomes that it is intolerably offensive to insist that marriage can only be between a man and a woman? Or that Catholicism is the one, true Faith? Plenty of other examples could be envisaged of press activity that upsets certain people or interests (corporations, political classes, pressure groups, vested interests, etc.). Who is to say that in the future Parliament, or enough of its Members, will not deem these things as “un-British”?

    Therefore I must respectfully disagree with you, Dr Oddie, and say that Parliament should have nothing to do with the establishment of a press regulator. The press must operate within the law of the land, just like the rest of us, and within that they – and we – should be able to speak freely. Otherwise, one day you might find they come looking for the Catholic Herald.

  • couissent

    How much I agree with you and sorry to have to disagree with William Oddie (probably the first time I have ever done so).

    It is not at all far-fetched to suppose that a statutory regulatory authority would impose constraints such as the ones you mention, and these could be implicit rather than explicit.  We already have the example of the Advertising Standards Authority, which has effectively censored material by anti-abortion groups, and even considered trying to ban pro-marriage material on the Internet.  And the ASA does not even have statutory backing.

    As you say, there are laws to deal with the disgraceful behaviour of certain journalists, and they should be rigorously enforced. 

  • NewFranciman

    Of course you are right.  Few in England realise the extent of depravity of our press particularly their outrageous justification that some people are in the public domain and therefore can morally have their privacy invaded.  Then there is their appeal for the right to expose hypocrisy by going into the bedrooms of celebrities and others.  We have a few very good newspapers in the UK but most are sleazy muckrakers who even now have not the slightest notion that they have been behaving abominably.  No where else, not in the US nor in those countries in Europe that I know is there anything like the amoral press of the UK.  You have to ask the question why the right wing MPs and Mr Cameron are behaving as if they were under the influence of the trash editors.  It is highly unlikely that they are taking a moral principled position which would be rather novel.

  • frmichael1

    Rather than go to all the trouble and expense of setting up an ‘independent’ regulator underpinned by legislation, it would be far more effective to reform the libel laws in England and Wales so they could be more effectively used as a remedy by everyone who has been ill-treated by an over-mighty ‘fourth estate,’ and not just the super-rich. 

  • Lewispbuckingham

    The penalties are punitive and would destroy an organisation that were not publically funded. 
    Many newspaper and media organisations work on turnover at a poor profit margin, just to stay in existence.
    Over time the independent media would be muzzled or wiped out by a process of a thousand cuts, leaving taxpayer media ‘the last man standing’.
    This would mean an ‘unforeseen’ consequence of this level of fines, a state run BBC oligopoly.

  • GratefulCatholic

    What astounds me is the almost complete failure of the British criminal law to apply itself. A few charges laid against media managers but little or no action against corrupt Police. Everything that happened here was illegal under current law, it’s enforcement by a clean police force that’s lacking.  

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    The press are a pack of junkyard dogs, but politicians are even worse. I don’t want the latter controlling the former. 

  • Parasum

    I’ve not yet read a journalist who favours regulation. This is a powerful argument for regulating them. They often quote Churchill or some comparable eminence in their favour; to which the reply is, that Churchill did not live at a time when the difference – even in the better class of paper – between pornography, “yellow” journalism, news, & opinion had almost vanished. “The Times” is a rag, and the DT is going the same way – if we lived in a healthier society, the defence would have a stronger argument; be we live in a society of what C. S. Lewis called “men with chests”, and this is at once an effect and a cause of the corruption of journalism. If we were governed & informed by wise and virtuous politicians and journalists then the issue would not arise – but the press are mistaking licence  for liberty.

    These journalists can quote the Areopagitica in favour of liberty of the Press (a Press nowhere near as vast as today’s – something they ignore; which greatly affects the value of their plea, but let that pass); but they know, or they should know, that it’s author was a determined foe of licence in every form:as he makes clear enough in “Paradise Lost”. Their liberty is what most men until 300 or years ago called licentiousness; it is not liberty at all, but “freedom” to ruin oneself and society. We live in a society of men lacking the inner freedom of virtues such as temperance & godliness, which makes us unworthy of freedom, so we lack even political freedom. Those  who are slaves to their own appetites are more enslaved & slavish than other men. Milton makes this point very forcefully in Book Eleven & Twelve of Paradise Lost.

    Regulation is necessary because too many people are not inwardly free but are slaves to their vices, and cannot be trusted not to harm others: as they have clearly shown – what they are within, they have shown by their external acts. Both for their good, and our protection, and also for the health of society, bad men should be restrained & the better sort encouraged: therefore, regulation is highly desirable, provided it is not born of unworthy motives such as malice or party spirit. A healthy press is very desirable – but that is not the kind of press we have at present. There is no good in its being vigorous, if it is vicious & a source of viciousness.     

  • Hammond

    ’2,000 word tome’? 

  • David Lindsay

    There is already the Parliamentary Lobby. This is already the registration of newspapers, doubtless including this one, with the Post Office. There is already publication by limited companies and by trusts, both of which are defined in, and regulated pursuant to, the Statute Law. What is all the fuss about?

    Bring on the Labour amendments to ban any person or other commercial interest from owning or controlling more than one national daily newspaper, or from owning or controlling more than one national weekly newspaper, or from owning or controlling more than one television station, and to restrict all such interests to British Citizens who are resident in the United Kingdom for tax purposes. How could any conservative or any Tory possibly be opposed to any of those, but most especially to the last of them?

    Next up, the City. No more states within this State. The sovereignty of Parliament must be defended, and where necessary reasserted, against media moguls and against money markets, against European federalism and against American domination, against Israel and against the Gulf monarchs, against China and against Russian oligarchs, against any and every threat whatever. Must it not? If not, why not?

  • GratefulCatholic

    I agree with your analysis but maintain that laws extant, both criminal and civil, are sufficient. The Police should lead with charges and once a conviction (and fine) is secured, a civil damages action, with lesser standards of proof, is certain to succeed. The big problem in these phone hacking cases, I believe, has been the almost total absence of clean Police action from the start. Scotland Yard seems to be on a moral par with the BBC and the other 40 something separate British Forces – well who knows? Do we really want to add to that plethora of authorities? Better to consolidate and sort out the Police rather than add new bureaucracy, which itself will likely, in turn, fall prey in the future to politics.      

  • W Oddie

    2000 pages, of course.

  • David Lindsay

    Milton, of all people, is being invoked in the cause of liberty. Milton
    was a high-ranking official in the only true tyranny in English, never
    mind Irish, history.

    The line is being trotted out that was tried over the hunting ban, a ban
    to which I was and remain opposed, but the answer is the same now as it
    was then: you are only
    “criminalised” if you break the law, in defiance of the Crown in
    Parliament. And there continues apace the hysteria of bullies to whom someone has
    finally stood up. Suddenly, they love the ECHR. Beyond parody. Miliband has called this right:
    winning elections now means siding against the lawless, sadistic, sociopathic,
    foreign, pseudo-Tory press. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh.

    However, get beyond the (largely foreign) corporate
    giants with the broadcasters (the largest of which is also foreign – yes, that
    means Sky, not the BBC) and the politicians in their pockets, and the
    Parliamentary Lobby lists 53 of what are therefore State-licensed print
    newspapers and magazines. The most diverse press in the world, based on
    that list. That list of State licensees, most of which would probably or
    certainly not survive the loss of such State licensing. The problem is that we
    are never allowed to hear from most of them.

    There is already the Parliamentary Lobby. There is
    already the registration of newspapers with the Post Office. There is already
    publication by limited companies and by trusts, both of which are defined in,
    and regulated pursuant to, the Statute Law. What is all the fuss about?

    What has become of Toryism stands
    exposed again: a vicious hostility to all civic life and institutions,
    including Parliament, and therefore to all public activity. Apart from wars for
    Israel. Of course. Even papers that are not owned
    by Rupert Murdoch pretend that they are. National sovereignty, of which Murdoch’s
    ownership of British newspapers is a material breach of the highest
    seriousness, can go hang. Meanwhile, competition is only for the likes of
    steelworkers.

    If Government policy on this were being determined by anything other than Cameron’s penis, then the only
    votes against the full implementation of Leveson would be those of a few Murdoch loyalist MPs, a position
    with a wide range of policy implications and all of them thoroughly pernicious,
    whom both parties could thus identify in order to deselect them. Probably not 50 in the entire House. Certainly
    not 100. And certainly not including the Prime Minister, of all people. But instead, we have this. We can all see why. A dog’s dinner is being made of a country supper.Or is it?
    They were in for less than an hour today, and no one has contradicted Cameron’s
    BBC interview in which he said that he laid down the law, with every threat of
    doing so literally. Interviewed themselves on the way out, they were resigned to the fact that
    whatever they proposed was subject to parliamentary approval. They have lost,
    they know it, and they are saying it openly.

    There was a distinct “Who is the Prime Minister here?” feel to it
    all. I do not like the fact that David Cameron is the Prime Minister. But he
    is. None of them is. This is a great day for parliamentary sovereignty. Here’s to many, many,
    many more.

    Those who have waited 20 years in order to avenge the 1992 General Election
    result and everything that followed from it, not least the rise of Tony Blair,
    will not now be denied that vengeance by any power on earth. They massively
    predominate within one party, and they are still far more numerous than most
    people realised within the other party.

    Or would you rather be given what they profess to want? The end of the
    distribution arrangements with the Post Office. And the abolition of the Lobby,
    so that they would all just have to watch BBC Parliament like everyone else.
    That is what independence of the State would mean.

  • David Lindsay

    Milton, of all people, is being invoked in the cause of liberty. Milton was a high-ranking official in the only true tyranny in English, never mind Irish, history.

    The line is being trotted out that was tried over the hunting ban, a ban to which I was and remain opposed, but the answer is the same now as it was then: you are only “criminalised” if you break the law, in defiance of the Crown in Parliament. And there continues apace the hysteria of bullies to whom someone has finally stood up. Suddenly, they love the ECHR. Beyond parody. Miliband has called this right: winning elections now means siding against the lawless, sadistic, sociopathic, foreign, pseudo-Tory press. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh.

    However, get beyond the (largely foreign) corporate giants with the broadcasters (the largest of which is also foreign – yes, that means Sky, not the BBC) and the politicians in their pockets, and the Parliamentary Lobby lists 53 of what are therefore State-licensed print newspapers and magazines. The most diverse press in the world, based on that list. That list of State licensees, most of which would probably or certainly not survive the loss of such State licensing. The problem is that we are never allowed to hear from most of them.

    There is already the Parliamentary Lobby. There is already the registration of newspapers with the Post Office. There is already publication by limited companies and by trusts, both of which are defined in, and regulated pursuant to, the Statute Law. What is all the fuss about?

    What has become of Toryism stands exposed again: a vicious hostility to all civic life and institutions, including Parliament, and therefore to all public activity. Apart from wars for Israel. Of course. Even papers that are not owned by Rupert Murdoch pretend that they are. National sovereignty, of which Murdoch’s ownership of British newspapers is a material breach of the highest seriousness, can go hang. Meanwhile, competition is only for the likes of steelworkers.

    If Government policy on this were being determined by anything other than Cameron’s penis, then the only votes against the full implementation of Leveson would be those of a few Murdoch loyalist MPs, a position with a wide range of policy implications and all of them thoroughly pernicious, whom both parties could thus identify in order to deselect them. Probably not 50 in the entire House. Certainly not 100. And certainly not including the Prime Minister, of all people. But instead, we have this. We can all see why. A dog’s dinner is being made of a country supper.

    Or is it?

    hey were in for less than an hour today, and no one has contradicted Cameron’s BBC interview in which he said that he laid down the law, with every threat of doing so literally. Interviewed themselves on the way out, they were resigned to the fact that whatever they proposed was subject to parliamentary approval. They have lost, they know it, and they are saying it openly.

    There was a distinct “Who is the Prime Minister here?” feel to it all. I do not like the fact that David Cameron is the Prime Minister. But he is. None of them is. This is a great day for parliamentary sovereignty. Here’s to many, many, many more.

    Those who have waited 20 years in order to avenge the 1992 General Election result and everything that followed from it, not least the rise of Tony Blair, will not now be denied that vengeance by any power on earth. They massively predominate within one party, and they are still far more numerous than most people realised within the other party.

    Or would they rather be given what they profess to want? The end of the distribution arrangements with the Post Office. And the abolition of the Lobby, so that they would all just have to watch BBC Parliament like everyone else. That is what independence of the State would mean.

  • Yorkshire Catholic

    Well when one looks at the goings on, it is hard to say who is controlling who over the country suppers. If you don’t want Rupert’s shadow over national life in the way it used to be, we need legislation — which of course is enforced by the judiciary not by the politicians. Having said that, I fully share GratefulCatholic’s puzzlement at the failures of law enforcement so far. But do they give us any grounds for reassurance that Cameron and the Editors will change their ways? Of course they don’t.