3 possible explanations for Cameron’s Leveson defection

December 4, 2012 5:00 pm

Why have David Cameron and the Coalition Tories rejected Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendation of a law to guarantee press freedom from government control (cf. the US First Amendment) and also to validate the independent regulatory system to be initiated by the press itself, using the Leveson template (no politicians, no press people)?  Here are three possible explanations of this unexpected defection from Cameron’s previous undertaking to accept the Leveson recommendations unless they proved to be ‘bonkers’:

(1) He fears the hostility of virtually all press publishers and editors if he agrees to legislation;  or

(2) He believes that any law affecting press regulation will amount in practice to government control;  or

(3) He thinks any law would be vulnerable to transformation into government control by some future illiberal government (the main argument on which he relied in parliament).

The third of these is unconvincing.  As I argued in a letter in the Guardian of 1 December, it would be easier for Cameron’s hypothetical future illiberal government to introduce government control of the press if the law remains silent on the issue in the meantime, than if parliament legislates now to require government to defend the freedom of the press from political control.

If Cameron’s resistance to legislation stems from (1) (fear of the wrath of the press), there’s not much to be done except to urge him to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood to do what’s right, not what’s politically safe but wrong.

This leaves Cameron’s (possibly genuine?) fear that any law on the subject will in practice amount to government control of the press.  To demonstrate this, Cameron’s recently promoted Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hitherto little known Maria Miller, is busy producing a Bill à la Leveson, not as a government Bill proposed for parliamentary approval – the normal purpose of a government Bill — but the opposite:  a text so complex, so far-reaching and replete with so many new government powers as to be obviously unacceptable.  This strange tactic has already prompted Labour to start producing a rival Bill of its own, to be held up when ready as an obviously valuable safeguard of press freedom and an instrument for validating the independent regulatory system which the press is now invited to devise.

Ed Miliband’s uncompromising support for virtually all the Leveson proposals, including a Leveson law, thereby  risking the anger of the press proprietors and editors, is brave and commendable (and, with luck, far-sighted).  The obvious problem concerns the timetable.  Leveson apparently envisages this sequence:

(i) the press produces detailed proposals for an independent regulatory system that meets the Leveson criteria;

(ii) these proposals are debated publicly and in parliament;

(iii) if generally approved, the proposed system is set up (and may begin to function immediately);

(iv)  an all-party parliamentary committee drafts a Leveson  law, with two main purposes:  requiring government to respect and defend the freedom of the press from political, government or parliamentary control, and “underpinning” the new regulatory system by formally approving and validating it and, only if necessary, granting it new powers to enable it to function as proposed by Leveson.

The Culture Secretary’s officials are already working on a draft Leveson Law designed to show that it would be unacceptable, and, as already noted, the media report that Labour has called in legal advisers to draft a Bill designed to show that it would be fine.  Both drafts may be ready within weeks.  This looks like a recipe for deadlock, each side damning the other’s Bill and everyone damning the Tory loyalist one.  Once the two texts are on the table, they may demonstrate the impossibility of  finalising (or rejecting) a Bill that recognises and validates the press industry’s proposals for independent self-regulation before the industry has even produced them.  This may point to agreement to defer decisions on the Bill, or Bills, and even on whether a law is required at all, until the press’s proposals are ready for scrutiny.

There are other questions on Leveson to be debated, including how (or whether) to regulate press publishers who refuse to sign up to the new (voluntary) system; whether Ofcom is a suitable overseer;  whether more needs to be said or done about the issues discreetly soft-pedalled by Leveson such as past cosy relations of political leaders with press proprietors and editors, and allegedly corrupt relations between press and police.  But for Labour, the LibDems and progressive Tories, the priority now is to establish that at the end of the process a law will be essential.  Without it, the whole exercise will have been a colossal waste of time and money.

What do we want?   A Leveson  law.

When do we want it?   Not yet.

  • David B

    He may also release that statutes passed in the UK restrict freedom of speech not protect it

  • Hugh

    Your argument that it it would be easier for a future illiberal government to introduce government control of the press if the law remains silent on the issue is unconvincing.

    It’s plainly easier for a future government to tweak the law once the principle of statutory regulation is already established than it is to introduce it, as the current debate goes some way to demonstrating. That’s particularly the case since any illiberal government is unlikely to have the gift of the phone hacking scandal fresh in mind to point to as an excuse. Cameron’s stated reason for opposing Leveson’s “statutory underpinning” is therefore a perfectly valid one.

    The characterisation Leveson’s recommendations as a law to guarantee press freedom from government control, by contrast, isn’t. That’s plainly not its central purpose, and to portray Leveson as the British answer to the first amendment is nonsense.

    • brianbarder

      The law proposed by Leveson is very clearly not one that “establishes the principle of statutory regulation”, but its opposite. Any benign law is theoretically capable of being converted into a malign one by a future unprincipled parliament and government: if that objection were to be upheld, we’d never have any more laws at all (and I don’t belong to the group that says that would be a good thing). An attempt to reverse the effects of an existing law providing firm and eloquent safeguards for press freedom would “plainly” (to use your word) be more controversial and more easily identified and resisted than a brand new piece of legislation that could dress up its true authoritarian effects in seemingly acceptable language.

      You are very optimistic in thinking it likely that we’ll never have any more press scandals, even without a Leveson law and a system of independent non-statutory self-regulation; I don’t share your optimism, only your hopes.

      Finally, you surely slip too easily from the (unsupported) assertion that the proposed element in the law that lays on government a duty to respect and safeguard the press’s freedom from political control is “plainly not its central purpose”, into implying that it’s therefore not its purpose at all, and then going one step further by inferring from this that any parallel with the US First Amendment is “nonsense”. Neither of those last two propositions follows logically or in any other way from its predecessor. Neither is valid.

      • Hugh

        The opposite of a law establishing the principal of statutory regulation is certainly not one that puts the regulation under the ultimate oversight of Ofcom, a statutory body whose head is appointed by ministers.

        And not any law is capable of being converted into one that restricts the press’s freedom. One whose entire intention is to put limits on the activities of the press is uniquely capable of being so.

        Moreover, while – plainly – establishing the right of Parliament to legislate on how the press is regulated (even if leaving the details of that regulation to others for now), Leveson adds no real protection in terms of the freedom of the press at all. That freedom is already an established; Leveson can’t add to it; nor does he.

        And that’s not surprising: The first Amendment is there to restrict the power of the government; Leveson is there to restrict the power (and abuses) of the press. It’s the first amendment in the US constitution; in Leveson the proposal for a duty on the Government to uphold the freedom of the press is the last recommendation.

      • Hugh

        The opposite of a law establishing the principal of statutory regulation is certainly not one that puts the regulation under the ultimate oversight of Ofcom, a statutory body whose head is appointed by ministers.

        And not any law is capable of being converted into one that restricts the press’s freedom. One whose entire intention is to put limits on the activities of the press is uniquely capable of being so.

        Moreover, while – plainly – establishing the right of Parliament to legislate on how the press is regulated (even if leaving the details of that regulation to others for now), Leveson adds no real protection in terms of the freedom of the press at all. That freedom is already an established; Leveson can’t add to it; nor does he.

        And that’s not surprising: The first Amendment is there to restrict the power of the government; Leveson is there to restrict the power (and abuses) of the press. It’s the first amendment in the US constitution; in Leveson the proposal for a duty on the Government to uphold the freedom of the press is the last recommendation.

        • brianbarder

          Leveson leaves it open whether Ofcom should be the overseer or monitor of the independent self-regulator or whether some different and new body should do it. It will be up to the press itself to decide how to handle that. I simply don’t agree that “Leveson can’t add to [the freedom of the press]… and nor does he”: his proposal to establish in statute that it’s a duty of the government to safeguard press freedom (in whatever language it may be couched) would represent an important strengthening of that freedom and safeguard against its erosion. I doubt if you could find an American press organ that would be relaxed about the repeal of the First Amendment on the grounds that “that freedom is already established” and putting it in the constitution doesn’t add to it. The attempt to devalue this key recommendation by comparing the first amendment to the US constitution with the last recommendation by Leveson is just playing with words — an obvious case of comparing apples not with oranges but with aeroplanes, or bloggers, or safety pins.

          Finally, you really can’t be allowed to get away with the far-fetched claim that the law proposed by Leveson is one “whose entire intention is to put limits on the activities of the press”. It’s intended to limit illegal and antisocial misbehaviour by the press, not its content, and the limits are to be imposed by a wholly independent body, set up by the press industry itself, not by the government or any other politicians. And an essential element of the law will be to lay an obligation on government to defend press freedom. The law will say that white is white: it will be quite tricky for Cameron’s hypothetical future illiberal government or parliament to propose to amend it to say that white is black without anyone noticing.

          You seem to be suggesting that it will be quite enough simply to beef up the PCC a little, with no legal arms’-length underpinning. I can’t accept that that would be anything like enough to reform the whole press culture. A clear majority in parliament (from all the main parties) and a majority of the public seem to agree that an underpinning law will be necessary. Only the press plus a handful of doctrinaire anarchist opponents of any action by any government at any time are opposed. As MR-D memorably remarked: Well, they would, wouldn’t they?

          • Hugh

            From the executive summary: “…an independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body and reassure the public that the basic requirements of independence and effectiveness were met and continue to be met; in the Report, I recommend that this is done by Ofcom…”

            And I personally doubt you could find an American press organ that would support the government legislating for a body such as Leveson proposes. And, no, it’s not semantics to point out that it’s the last recommendation Leveson makes; it reflects the focus of the report.

            As for the protection it provides, the Welsh government currently has “an essential element of the law” that says it has to pay heed to “sustainability” in all it does. Fortunately for it, like any duty to respect the freedom of the press, that’s a pretty moveable feast. The established principle that Parliament has no business regulating the press is much more clear cut. That’s why Leveson diminishes not enhances such protection. In fact, I don’t know anyone else that argues this makes the press more independent, even those that support it.

            And, no, it’s not at all far fetched to say Leveson is intent on limiting the activities of the press; it’s clearly true. He certainly did not just intended to limit “illegal” behaviour, since he explicitly rejected better enforcement of existing law. And that leaves your word, “antisocial”, doing a lot of work. Clearly Leveson does want to limit the press’s activities – that’s the whole point; you can argue it’s necessary, but it’s undeniably his intention.

            Finally, no, it doesn’t follow that I’m not suggesting a slightly beefed up PCC. If the press implemented Leveson in full without a statute, would that be a slightly beefed up PCC? But as it is, I’m suspicious of any attempt to “reform the whole press culture” in one clean package. The problems – hacking, intrusion of privacy, political influence and transparency – are all distinct problems and can be usefull tackled in a variety of ways. A good many of them could be better tackled in my opinion giving greater power to individuals through access to justice and, if necessary, new laws, rather than attempting to constrain the power of the press through a central regulatory body. In any case, though, none require a statutory underpinned body that would rule on reporters’ accuracy, for example.

          • brianbarder

            Of course Leveson’s report aims, among other things, to limit, restrain, or ensure that there are penalties for, certain kinds of misbehaviour by the press. The point is that this is not the function of the law that he recommends. And although he does recommend Ofcom as a possible monitoring body, he also acknowledges that others might be preferred.
            Enough said, I think — by me, anyway!

          • Hugh

            Thanks for taking the time, anyway.

          • Hugh

            Thanks for taking the time, anyway.

          • Hugh

            Thanks for taking the time, anyway.

          • brianbarder

            And my thanks to you, too. It has been a good exchange.

          • brianbarder

            And my thanks to you, too. It has been a good exchange.

          • brianbarder

            And my thanks to you, too. It has been a good exchange.

          • brianbarder

            And my thanks to you, too. It has been a good exchange.

          • brianbarder

            And my thanks to you, too. It has been a good exchange.

          • brianbarder

            And my thanks to you, too. It has been a good exchange.

          • brianbarder

            And my thanks to you, too. It has been a good exchange.

          • brianbarder

            And my thanks to you, too. It has been a good exchange.

          • brianbarder

            Of course Leveson’s report aims, among other things, to limit, restrain, or ensure that there are penalties for, certain kinds of misbehaviour by the press. The point is that this is not the function of the law that he recommends. And although he does recommend Ofcom as a possible monitoring body, he also acknowledges that others might be preferred.
            Enough said, I think — by me, anyway!

          • brianbarder

            Of course Leveson’s report aims, among other things, to limit, restrain, or ensure that there are penalties for, certain kinds of misbehaviour by the press. The point is that this is not the function of the law that he recommends. And although he does recommend Ofcom as a possible monitoring body, he also acknowledges that others might be preferred.
            Enough said, I think — by me, anyway!

          • Hugh

            From the executive summary: “…an independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body and reassure the public that the basic requirements of independence and effectiveness were met and continue to be met; in the Report, I recommend that this is done by Ofcom…”

            And I personally doubt you could find an American press organ that would support the government legislating for a body such as Leveson proposes. And, no, it’s not semantics to point out that it’s the last recommendation Leveson makes; it reflects the focus of the report.

            As for the protection it provides, the Welsh government currently has “an essential element of the law” that says it has to pay heed to “sustainability” in all it does. Fortunately for it, like any duty to respect the freedom of the press, that’s a pretty moveable feast. The established principle that Parliament has no business regulating the press is much more clear cut. That’s why Leveson diminishes not enhances such protection. In fact, I don’t know anyone else that argues this makes the press more independent, even those that support it.

            And, no, it’s not at all far fetched to say Leveson is intent on limiting the activities of the press; it’s clearly true. He certainly did not just intended to limit “illegal” behaviour, since he explicitly rejected better enforcement of existing law. And that leaves your word, “antisocial”, doing a lot of work. Clearly Leveson does want to limit the press’s activities – that’s the whole point; you can argue it’s necessary, but it’s undeniably his intention.

            Finally, no, it doesn’t follow that I’m not suggesting a slightly beefed up PCC. If the press implemented Leveson in full without a statute, would that be a slightly beefed up PCC? But as it is, I’m suspicious of any attempt to “reform the whole press culture” in one clean package. The problems – hacking, intrusion of privacy, political influence and transparency – are all distinct problems and can be usefull tackled in a variety of ways. A good many of them could be better tackled in my opinion giving greater power to individuals through access to justice and, if necessary, new laws, rather than attempting to constrain the power of the press through a central regulatory body. In any case, though, none require a statutory underpinned body that would rule on reporters’ accuracy, for example.

          • Hugh

            From the executive summary: “…an independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body and reassure the public that the basic requirements of independence and effectiveness were met and continue to be met; in the Report, I recommend that this is done by Ofcom…”

            And I personally doubt you could find an American press organ that would support the government legislating for a body such as Leveson proposes. And, no, it’s not semantics to point out that it’s the last recommendation Leveson makes; it reflects the focus of the report.

            As for the protection it provides, the Welsh government currently has “an essential element of the law” that says it has to pay heed to “sustainability” in all it does. Fortunately for it, like any duty to respect the freedom of the press, that’s a pretty moveable feast. The established principle that Parliament has no business regulating the press is much more clear cut. That’s why Leveson diminishes not enhances such protection. In fact, I don’t know anyone else that argues this makes the press more independent, even those that support it.

            And, no, it’s not at all far fetched to say Leveson is intent on limiting the activities of the press; it’s clearly true. He certainly did not just intended to limit “illegal” behaviour, since he explicitly rejected better enforcement of existing law. And that leaves your word, “antisocial”, doing a lot of work. Clearly Leveson does want to limit the press’s activities – that’s the whole point; you can argue it’s necessary, but it’s undeniably his intention.

            Finally, no, it doesn’t follow that I’m not suggesting a slightly beefed up PCC. If the press implemented Leveson in full without a statute, would that be a slightly beefed up PCC? But as it is, I’m suspicious of any attempt to “reform the whole press culture” in one clean package. The problems – hacking, intrusion of privacy, political influence and transparency – are all distinct problems and can be usefull tackled in a variety of ways. A good many of them could be better tackled in my opinion giving greater power to individuals through access to justice and, if necessary, new laws, rather than attempting to constrain the power of the press through a central regulatory body. In any case, though, none require a statutory underpinned body that would rule on reporters’ accuracy, for example.

  • brianbarder

    What, all UK statutes, present and future, restrict freedom of speech? How does the Human Rights Act, to take but one obvious example, manage to do that? Do you mean to suggest that this condemnation of all UK laws applies only to those “passed in the UK”, and that those passed in, say, the US, or North Korea, may protect freedom of speech, because the Americans or North Koreans have more efficient parliamentary draftsmen? Or is your sweeping statement merely an expression of the anarchist’s belief that all government and all legislation are automatically a bad thing?

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