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.