The whole sorry saga of press regulation has been undermined by hidden agendas
There has been too much hate, and it has undermined the whole point of the exercise whichever way Monday’s votes go. Tabloid journalists hate upmarket journalists, and both are variously hated in turn by struggling editors in our regional press. Broadcasters hate print journalists; and vice versa. Ed and Nick hate David, and vice versa. Hacks hate lawyers, grubbing for fees. The campaigners of Hacked Off – many of them much richer, courtesy of Rupert Murdoch’s £100m compensation fund – want their pound of flesh come what may. Increasingly, ministers and shadow ministers hate taking their hectoring calls. And – remind me again – what was the point of the whole Leveson parade? To restore trust, public trust, in the press. Forget it.
Our politicians – the ones Lord Justice Leveson wanted removed from the action – can’t find common ground. It’s far easier to slag off opponents and play wrecking games. The press – never a cohesive industry anyway – hasn’t been allowed to get its own act together and so has inevitably fractured into its component parts of mutual resentment. And there is no realistic way forward here.
If Cameron and his Conservatives win through, they’ll be broad-brush denounced by Labour, Lib Dems, the serried victims and their lawyers. Since “statutory underpinning”, in its shorthand, barely understood way, has become the litmus test of proper regulation in the public mind, any body that fails to include it upfront – even this commodiously detailed charter – will automatically be scorned as a press barons’ pleaser, a fudge, a catalogue of supposed betrayal. The corrosion of hate.
But if Ed and Nick carry the day for their charter version, then what? Goodbye to relatively speedy answers. Hello to what’s called “full” Leveson implementation – except that Sir Brian never delivered a full bundle of answers himself. The most vexatious issues – intrinsically asking what “independence” means in a quangoid Britain where the same cast of great and good characters, retired judges, retired permanent secretaries, Oxbridge dignitaries, shift sweetly from one padded committee seat to the next – weren’t addressed. To underpin real press support for a new self-regulator, you have first to decide what exactly that body is, who appoints it, how it can be vetted and kept up to the mark. But consensus there (as built by Lord Hunt at the residual Press Complaints Commission) will fracture as hate poisons civilised discussion.
Hunt’s timetable (a new organisation up and running by 1 July) won’t endure if Miliband and Clegg have their way, because much of his plan can’t realistically survive Cameron defeat. Why should the local press saddle itself with the cost of arbitration tribunals when it has done nothing wrong? Why should the press as a whole pay for regulation by a commission it has no real say in appointing, administering a code it has no clear say in drawing up?
Miliband victory opens the door to two wholly unwelcome things: many more months of threat and disillusion – or a simple refusal to go any further, leaving parliament to devise and install its own statutory press regulation regime if it so wishes: an Ofpress to match Ofcom. There have always been voices on newspaper backbenches saying leave regulation to the law itself, to articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, just as the US relies on its first amendment. They may be heard again as this miserable row snarls on.
The problem, from beginning to end of this sad, sliding saga, has lain with the poison of hidden agendas. It began intrinsically when the politicians of 65 years ago, used to the deference of wartime censorship, sought to put a newly unruly press back in its box. It has gathered a whole sub-industry of specialist lawyers serving their own needs along the way. The press sees exposing political crookery as one of its jobs. The politicians – read the new Bribery Act that would surely have stopped the Daily Telegraph’s investigation of MPs expenses – have a different job in mind. Was Leveson’s array of victimhood presented as current, transparent and fair? The latest round of arrests, covering alleged events in 2003-4, come coated with dust yet again.
There could, without Leveson, have been a substantial remaking of press self-regulation long since. There could, with a little statesmanship from the politicians, have been an agreement that had some chance of short-term success (until sabotaged by the galloping internet). But it’s precious hard to see even modestly durable hope now. You can’t restore trust if you don’t trust anyone around you.