“What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”
So said Stanley Baldwin in 1931. (The phrase was provided by his cousin, Rudyard Kipling.) He could have been talking about today’s press barons, and their criminal behaviour.
His current day successor as Tory prime minister is made of different stuff. He sided with the press barons and rejected the central recommendation of the Leveson report: proper regulation of this unruly industry, backed by statute.
Cameron naturally cloaked in noble concepts his rejection of the recommendations of the inquiry he himself set up:
“The issue of principle is that for the first time we would have crossed the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land. We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.”
A moment’s consideration shows this to be utter nonsense. Parliament has passed countless laws that infringe free speech and a free speech, in many cases for profoundly sensible reasons. (The obvious one is the contempt laws that try to prevent the judicial process being compromised by unfair reporting. Yet the odious tabloid press ignored those laws in its rush to destroy the reputation of Christopher Jefferies, the landlord of murdered Joanna Yeates.)
It’s no surprise that Cameron rushed to rubbish Leveson: like too many politicians, he was unhealthily close to the press barons who have behaved so appallingly. (He rushed to show that Leveson cleared him of any deal with News International, ignoring the fact that a deal was unnecessary: a nudge and a wink was enough, as it was with Tony Blair’s relationship with the Murdoch empire.)
Here are just a few examples of why the argument against statute-backed regulation is so weak:
- Our criminal and civil justice systems are even more important defences of freedom than the press. Has anyone ever suggested they are weaker for being statute-based?
- Politicians and journalists claim to fear politicians getting involved in the press. Haven’t they noticed that three out of four chairmen of the useless Press Complaints Commission were Tory peers? And that two of them are lobbying on behalf of the press proprietors against statutory regulation, regardless of the public interest?
- The press has had countless opportunities to put its own house in order. As long ago as 1991, Tory minister David Mellor said the press was supping in last chance saloon. Twenty years on, it’s still at the bar. If there’s a regulator in the last chance saloon, it might as well be called Ofpiss.
- Tory and Labour politicians have rightly demanded stronger regulation of industries and professions that have proved inadequate, corrupt and self serving. They have passed laws to enforce that regulation. Yet David Cameron thinks the press should escape scot-free. This is simply not on.
- Press barons cannot be allowed to choose to be regulated, as Express owner Richard Desmond has exercised to stay out of the Press Complaints Commission. (His titles acted despicably in libelling Madeleine McCann’s parents.) We need legislation to ensure that the likes of Desmond never have this choice again.
- Legislation and international agreements provide a strong defence of freedom of the press and freedom of expression. Britain was a powerful influence in the creation of the European Convention of Human Rights over 60 years ago. Labour incorporated the ECHR into British law in the Human Rights Act. Yet many Tories opposed both. So much for their concern for freedom of expression.
- Opponents of the idea of statutory press regulation argue that it’s unnecessary as phone hacking and other press outrages were infringements of existing laws. Yet the point is pointless: the press ignored the law. It needs greater enforcement controls.
The bigger question about Leveson is what it didn’t consider. Ignoring the influence of the online world was a big failure. (Understandable in 1999; inexplicable in 2012.) As the admirable Emily Bell pointed out in the Guardian (before Leveson’s publication), “to put “the internet” within the scope of Leveson would be as daft as it would be futile, and to regulate the press further, without having a broader definition of who “the press” might be, is a recipe for irrelevance.”
Yet I sense that we will soon see the end of the wild west era of the internet, at least in major countries. (We got a hint of that in Lord McAlpine’s actions against Twitter users who libelled him over the false BBC Newsnight allegations.)
Leveson didn’t get everything right. In the first few pages of his report, he called the Mail on Sunday the Sunday Mail (a very different title). More seriously, he misunderstands the importance of protecting sources. Yet overall, he offers a historic new settlement between the press and the people. Politicians and the media should seize the chance.