Leveson’s light proposals were a political gift for Cameron. He didn’t take it

November 29, 2012 3:31 pm

Very few industries welcome new regulation. Fast food retailers aren’t vocal in screaming for a ‘fat tax’. Booze manufacturers don’t want a minimum price for alcohol. Energy generators don’t generally want strong renewable obligations. When new regulations are proposed then the industry interest resorts to apocalyptic rhetoric that often refers to: (a) North Korea and China; (b) George Orwell; and/or (c) Adolf Hitler. So far, so obvious.

So this week’s broad press reaction to the possibility of the creation of a new statute-underpinned regulator was all rather predictable. Fraser “Spartacus” Nelson won’t go to prison to fight it. And nor will anyone else.

There are very good arguments against state-underpinned independent regulation of the press. There are good arguments against introducing new regulation across all the industries mentioned above. It is only when there is identifiable harm through not regulating or where there are collective outcomes that have wide benefit that would not be secured that action should be taken. To propose such institutions is not ‘anti-liberal’ as long as these bodies safeguard or enhance freedom in a way that would not occur without the intervention. It is, however, anti-libertarian.

Today’s press are the libertarians of the age. Freedom does sometimes depend on laws rather than their absence. This is one such occasion. True liberals understand that.

Sir David Calcutt proposed the continuation of self-regulation of the press as a last chance in 1993 as explained by Carl Gardner. Well, that last-chance has now gone. There is little doubt that since 1993 the newspaper industry has failed to take responsibility upon itself. That lack of responsibility has led to individuals being harassed, laws broken without any identifiable public interest, public authorities corrupted, and the legislative and political process compromised.

There is nothing in the advance manoeuvres of the press in the last few days and weeks that shows the press is willing or able to confront its excesses. This is the clincher in favour of a statute-underpinned independent regulator. The purpose of such a regulator is not simply to stiffen up redress but also to force a different press culture – willing to take risks in pursuit of the public interest but also understanding that it has to act in a more responsible way towards the rights of the individual. The relationship was clearly not going to be resolved by a beefed up Press Complaints Commission.

The Leveson Inquiry is far from a triumph, however. It still puts the ball in the court of the press to come back with its own proposals before the state route is pursued – a tactical error that will delay necessary action. He has actually proposed a statutory backstop rather than statutory-underpinning of the press: weaker in other words.

He has also failed to understand how News International titles have underpinned the commercial interests of News Corporation. There was no ‘deal’ between the Conservatives and Rupert Murdoch on BSkyB he concludes. Of course there wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean that there was not unspoken collusion – far more subtle but equally corrosive. News International is the power lever; BSkyB the cash machine. Leveson has completely misunderstood this interaction. It’s not a conspiracy as such; it’s a bias (and in this Leveson was far too credulous)– one that has a corrosive effect. There was more than enough evidence of this bias in the evidence he received.

The biggest issue in this arena is not press regulation itself. It’s concentration of ownership and how that swells the political power of some media barons. Teddy Roosevelt would have understood this well. Without a strong cultural push back- the sort of culture of integrity that, for example, exists at The Times – this concentration of power can corrode the public interest. Leveson fails in this regard and it was apparent during the Inquiry that he had failed to understand the machinations of modern politics and media in this regard.

Other objections to statute-backed regulation that have been thrown up are also fairly marginal. The ‘internet’ objection hardly stands up to any scrutiny. It will be fairly straightforward to include internet-only publications under the provisions of any new regulatory body. If you are a UK-located commercial news operation – even if foreign registered and owned – of a certain size, on or off-line, that is not already regulated by Ofcom then you should be regulated in the same way as the press.

So over to the politicians as Lord Leveson said. David Cameron is ducking state-underpinning or even a state-backstop for independent regulation. The received wisdom is that the public doesn’t care about Leveson and all that. To a certain extent, this is right. But if the outcome is simply a slightly beefed up PCC then people will be confused – why on earth was the Inquiry necessary? And if the industry fails to come up with anything more then will David Cameron be willing, as he says, to ‘cross the Rubicon’ and initiate legislation or regulatory action? On this he was silent. From the evidence of the last few days, it seems anything but obvious that consensus for strong independent regulation will be agreed by the press. Philosophically, Cameron rejected the proposals on conservative grounds – unforeseen consequences of creating new legislation and regulation. This is a position that it will be difficult to reverse given it is underpinned by philosophy.

David Cameron’s position – whether tactical or philosophical – is a politically problematic one. It won’t be a disaster for him to be seen to resist real reform but will add to the long list of doubts that people already have of him. It is a position that will be seen as weak, politics as usual, sucking up to the media – the full-throated support of The Sun in 2015 may not be enough to compensate for the negatives that the Prime Minister is stacking up.

For Ed Miliband, he has no option but to drive forward. On press regulation, Leveson has pitched his proposal in a neat political position. That helps Miliband to demand urgency. The bonus is that this position is a wedge between the two Coalition partners and that will look bad on both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Miliband is all-in on this one but he can win and look stronger in the process. The parliamentary arithmetic may also start to work in his favour on this issue.

The Leveson report is pretty much the weakest possible proposal that fits within a statutory-underpinning for independent press regulation. He expressed the desire for his report to be the final word on press regulation after half a century of trying. If there is any slippage at all from his proposals then it won’t be the last word at all. If it’s a negotiating position then it’s a weak one but one that David Cameron still failed to grasp hold of. Never look a gift horse in the mouth? The Prime Minister may just have done so.

  • Hugh

    Food retailers, booze manufacturers and energy companies don’t play an important part in the democratic process, upholding freedom of speech, and holding the government to account. Therefore the fact that they are regulated isn’t really a good argument – or any argument at all – as to why we should not fear statutory regulation of the press.

    And the fact that the current system of self regulation has failed is only marginally better. Statutory regulation of broadcast journalism didn’t stop the BBC shelving its programme on Savile, and then joining ITV in smearing an innocent man. Does that mean statutory regulation can’t work?

    You offer very little in the way of argument that anything without statutory underpinning necessarily a “slightly beefed up PCC”.

    • http://twitter.com/anthonypainter Anthony Painter

      1. Food, booze, energy. It wasn’t an argument for or against regulation. It was an observation about the way interests present their argument. The press is a democratic organ but it is also a commercial and professional interest group. Scene-setter….thought that was clear.

      2. The BBC is not regulated by an independent regulator. I don’t know what exactly you are referring to with ‘smearing of an innocent man’. ITV has no option but to be regulated by Ofcom. It received a fine of £5million or so because of its phone-in scandal. That makes you stop and think as an editor etc. The Daily Express has chosen not to be part of the PCC and that is why the statutory underpinning/backstop will be necessary. Your point that statutory regulation is not perfect is, of course correct but is a pretty banal point to make.

      3. What sort of independent regulator do you think that *all* newspapers will sign up to? I’m afraid the Hunt-Black proposal just doesn’t cut it in terms of independence. The reality is they will want a beefed up PCC which isn’t good enough.

      • Hugh

        1. And my point was that if there are indeed very good reasons against introducing regulation in those other sectors, they are qualitatively different to those against regulating the press, so while the objections of the press might be predictable, they should be considered more seriously. Furthermore, the fact the press are inherently unlikely to support regulation doesn’t undermine their objections: I appreciate it was a scene setter. It’s an skewed scene.

        2. Whereas those involved in phone hacking have merely been arrested and face prison? Your point that self regulation is not perfect is pretty banal. And the BBC is regulated by the BBC Trust, established by Royal Charter, with the chair of it appointed by Ministers. I think that counts as statutory regulation.

        3. I suspect most would join at the moment frankly. In terms of independence, I’m not sure true independence exists. Frankly I’m much more worried about independence from government than independence from the press. There’s nothing to prevent statutes to give ordinary punters easier access to remedies for libel and harassment; nor statutes to nudge the police in the direction of obeying the law on taking payments and enforcing the existing law on phone hacking; nor on statutes to compel MPs to report their relationships with the press. All of them would probably improve accountability and practice; none would involve appointing a statutory-established “independent board” to rule on issues such as accuracy.

        • http://twitter.com/anthonypainter Anthony Painter

          The purpose of the Board is to rule on compliance with governance not on the decisions the body makes. It’s interesting that you mention the BBC Trust. What political interference has there been in the journalistic output of the BBC as a result of this ‘statutory regulation’? David Cameron’s argument about unforeseen consequences is a much better one but on balance I don’t think the ‘Leveson principles’ will be upheld without the statutory backstop. If they are then fine….but that, ultimately, is as a result of the threat of state underpinning which is, in effect, statutory underpinning…

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1024010664 Mike Thomas

            What political interference has there been in the journalistic output of the BBC as a result of this ‘statutory regulation’?

            Erm, sexed-up dossier.

          • Hugh

            Is that the BBC which saw its reporter, editor and boss resign in the aftermath of an essentially accurate report that the government had exaggerated the case for the Iraq war, or was that a different independently regulated broadcaster?

            Yes, it is interesting to mention the BBC Trust, chaired by a former Tory MP; and interesting also to mention independent regulator Ofcom, headed by ex Blair and Brown advisor Ed Richards: The type of figures we want to ultimately arbitrate on questions of fairness and respect for privacy?

          • http://twitter.com/anthonypainter Anthony Painter

            Let’s leave ‘essentially right’ to one side. It wasn’t political interference. It was as a result of a report by Lord Hutton. Presumably he was just a puppet of the state? I don’t buy that at all. But that’s rather beside the point. It wasn’t as a result of state regulation but rather through a Public Inquiry- rather different.

            As for the other point, it’s all rather ad hominem and again relies on the puppet theory of politics. How has Lord Patten directed the content of BBC news/factual output? I’d love to know. Lot’s of bogeymen, Hugh….

          • Hugh

            It’s not ad hominem to suggest that putting deeply political figures in charge of regulating the press is an appalling bad idea. It’s not even necessary to show examples of its skewing reporting; a basic sense of the principles of natural justice would suggest such figures are the last people that should effectively be in a position to judge such questions. Moreover, at least the BBC and ITV are protected in some respects by the statutory duty to be impartial; newspapers have a different role making them much more vulnerable.

            No, I don’t suppose Hutton was a puppet. He was appointed by the government, however, and his findings led to lots of people at the BBC losing their jobs; and, if anecdote is acceptable, considerable circumspection in the BBC for some time to come about being too critical of the government. Would a similar outcome have occured at the Sun or Times? I rather doubt it, but in any case if that chain of events doesn’t show the potential for abuse I’m unsure what would.

            And, yes, it is about bogeymen when it comes to safeguarding press freedom: Just assuming an endless supply of politicians with benevolent intentions and a desire to prioritise press freedom over their own interest strikes me as a tad short-sighted.

          • Brumanuensis

            But it is an ad hominem, given that as Anthony points out, you have no clear proof that those figures have skewed reporting or regulation of reporting, on a political basis. I wouldn’t vote for Patten, but I don’t doubt his integrity on this issue. Likewise, I don’t think the Danish press, who are both subsidised and regulated by statute, would agree with your insinuation that a statutory underpinning undermines their freedom. Denmark is the 12th freest country on Reporters Without Borders table of press freedom. The UK is 28th.

            http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20466987

          • Hugh

            To complain that undeniably political figures should be appointed to a role that must (if it exists at all) be entirely apolitical is “ad hominem”? Are you sure you understand the term?

            As I think I pointed out, principals fairly common to natural justice – such as justice not just being done but being seen to be done – should preclude this without the need for evidence that it has already skewed reporting.

            I have no idea what the Danish press is like or whether it is anything like as effective as the British press in exposing those in power. However – as I also pointed out – the question is not whether this government or the next, or the current Danish government, undermine the freedom of the press due to the statutory regulation. It is a question of whether it makes it easier to do so and more likely. I’m convinced it does.

          • Hugh

            To complain that undeniably political figures should be appointed to a role that must (if it exists at all) be entirely apolitical is “ad hominem”? Are you sure you understand the term?

            As I think I pointed out, principals fairly common to natural justice – such as justice not just being done but being seen to be done – should preclude this without the need for evidence that it has already skewed reporting.

            I have no idea what the Danish press is like or whether it is anything like as effective as the British press in exposing those in power. However – as I also pointed out – the question is not whether this government or the next, or the current Danish government, undermine the freedom of the press due to the statutory regulation. It is a question of whether it makes it easier to do so and more likely. I’m convinced it does.

          • Hugh

            To complain that undeniably political figures should be appointed to a role that must (if it exists at all) be entirely apolitical is “ad hominem”? Are you sure you understand the term?

            As I think I pointed out, principals fairly common to natural justice – such as justice not just being done but being seen to be done – should preclude this without the need for evidence that it has already skewed reporting.

            I have no idea what the Danish press is like or whether it is anything like as effective as the British press in exposing those in power. However – as I also pointed out – the question is not whether this government or the next, or the current Danish government, undermine the freedom of the press due to the statutory regulation. It is a question of whether it makes it easier to do so and more likely. I’m convinced it does.

          • Hugh

            To complain that undeniably political figures should be appointed to a role that must (if it exists at all) be entirely apolitical is “ad hominem”? Are you sure you understand the term?

            As I think I pointed out, principals fairly common to natural justice – such as justice not just being done but being seen to be done – should preclude this without the need for evidence that it has already skewed reporting.

            I have no idea what the Danish press is like or whether it is anything like as effective as the British press in exposing those in power. However – as I also pointed out – the question is not whether this government or the next, or the current Danish government, undermine the freedom of the press due to the statutory regulation. It is a question of whether it makes it easier to do so and more likely. I’m convinced it does.

          • Hugh

            To complain that undeniably political figures should be appointed to a role that must (if it exists at all) be entirely apolitical is “ad hominem”? Are you sure you understand the term?

            As I think I pointed out, principals fairly common to natural justice – such as justice not just being done but being seen to be done – should preclude this without the need for evidence that it has already skewed reporting.

            I have no idea what the Danish press is like or whether it is anything like as effective as the British press in exposing those in power. However – as I also pointed out – the question is not whether this government or the next, or the current Danish government, undermine the freedom of the press due to the statutory regulation. It is a question of whether it makes it easier to do so and more likely. I’m convinced it does.

          • Hugh

            To complain that undeniably political figures should be appointed to a role that must (if it exists at all) be entirely apolitical is “ad hominem”? Are you sure you understand the term?

            As I think I pointed out, principals fairly common to natural justice – such as justice not just being done but being seen to be done – should preclude this without the need for evidence that it has already skewed reporting.

            I have no idea what the Danish press is like or whether it is anything like as effective as the British press in exposing those in power. However – as I also pointed out – the question is not whether this government or the next, or the current Danish government, undermine the freedom of the press due to the statutory regulation. It is a question of whether it makes it easier to do so and more likely. I’m convinced it does.

  • Daniel Speight

    I agree with Anthony that Cameron should have grabbed the report with both hands. Instead he may well have made a colossal mistake for the very reason that bought about the inquiry in the first place. He could probably survive criticism from Hugh Grant and the various celebrities, but once those ordinary people who were victims of terrible crimes start to speak, protecting the press barons isn’t going to seem such a good idea any more.

  • http://twitter.com/anthonypainter Anthony Painter

    Please see my comment above.

  • Dave Postles
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Graeme-Hancocks/1156294498 Graeme Hancocks

    Excellent article. Few journalists, editors or media
    proprioters seem to have realized just how low in the public’s
    estimation journalism and the media have sunk. The pretense that the
    freedom of the press is threatened by Levison’s recommendation just will
    not wash with the public any longer. The press has proven again and
    again and again that is untrustworthy and incapable of self regulation.
    No more chances. The Cameron line is disingenious. His position guided by
    nothing more noble than trying to curry favour with the media and in
    return receive their their
    support at the next election. If evidence were needed, just look at his
    headlines today. Collusion – quite!

  • Brumanuensis

    The problem in Britain is that the press threw away their independence a long time ago. The current state of political reporting, across all newspapers, right and left, is an incestuous form of mutual parasitism, in which newspapers do favours for politicians of all Parties, who in turn do favours for newspapers. The hysterical shrieking from the likes of Fraser Nelson about the horrors of statutory regulation are rendered utterly hollow by this willing co-habitation and quiet corruption it generates. Next to it, the alleged dangers of statutory regulation are very small beer indeed.

    Anyone who reads the excellent Tabloid Watch blog will be aware of the constant sloppy factual reporting by many mass circulation newspapers, particularly on European issues, benefits – as Full Fact have often noted – and immigration. This isn’t a question of differences of opinion, which are a natural part of reporting; it’s basic errors of fact, which are then either left uncorrected or are corrected, but in the most unobtrusive, private manner possible for a mass-media publication, leaving the initial false impression intact.

    Fraser Nelson, incidentally, edits a magazine that earlier this year was almost charged with contempt of court for nearly jeopardising an entire criminal trial. Not to mention that time a few years ago when he and the Spectator merrily promoted AIDS denialism (http://www.badscience.net/2009/10/aids-denialism-at-the-spectator/)

    *And yes, the Guardian has its share of screw-ups too and if you want to see complicity in political reporting, read Wintour & Watt, or even Andrew Sparrow on a bad day.

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