Is the last chance saloon still open?

Malcolm Dean

Malcolm Dean

Exclusive: the first verdict on the Leveson Inquiry from the Guardian‘s Malcolm Dean

‘So, finally the bogeyman has arrived. A regulated press! Government intervention! Stalinism! Precious liberties won through 300 years of courage and eloquence to be forfeited by a panic about phone hacking!’ Harry Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times and the Times, summed up Fleet Street’s response well this morning (30th November) in the Guardian. Written before he even saw today’s edition, it could not have been more accurate. The Sun’s editorial condemned Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for allowing ‘state officials to walk into papers like the Sun and censor stories.’ The Mail‘s headline declared ‘Cameron’s stand for freedom – defiant PM says he won’t back key proposal’. A Telegraph headline was equally upbeat and panegyric: ‘Unexpected decision makes PM a leader in defence of liberty’.

No doubt there were big smiles in Downing Street this morning from such widespread media endorsements. Undoubtedly that was one reason for his veto. Another was the need to pacify his rebellious right wing backbenchers.  So much for Cameron’s pledges that he would support Leveson so long as it had the support of victims and there was nothing ‘bonkers’ in it. His veto broke both his own tests. Add two more to his 37 u-turns. His purported reason, given in Parliament yesterday, was the Leveson plan would cross ‘the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into law’. As one Lib Dem MP noted, he had his waterways wrong: ‘not a Rubicon, barely a brook’.

Leveson rightly insists that he has not produced a statutory system, but an independent system given statutory backing. Leaning over backwards to get the media barons on side, he has left the media to produce a replacement of the hapless Press Complaints Commission. True, he is requiring a rigorous regulator with investigatory powers and severe sanctions, not just a complaints office. But the media had already accepted that. What they have not yet conceded, but which he rightly insists on, is that the industry should not be involved in the appointment of its chair and the board, which should have no serving editor on it, although an ex editor and retired publisher could be. Why legislation was needed was his bundle of incentives to encourage the news groups to join: an arbitration service providing a fair, quick and inexpensive avenue for victims to seek settlements, which would only be open to news groups who sign up. Non-media members would be left to the courts, subject to exemplary damages for not signing up and unable to claim their legal costs even if they won.

The idea that politicians are eager to rein-in the media is a myth. History documents not six but seven reports in the last 63 years demonstrating their reluctance: three royal commissions (1949, 1962, 1977), Younger (1969), Robertson (1983), along with two from Calcutt (1990 and 1993) all producing proposals which governments declined to take up. Stephen Dorrell, media minister in 1993, explained to Leveson why the Conservative government declined to take up Calcutt’s ‘last chance saloon’: the depth of opposition within the media. No change there.

There is no doubt about the public’s support: 82 per cent opposed a self-regulated system under the industry’s control; 79 per cent supported Leveson’s idea of an independent system underpinned by law in a YouGov/Media Standards Trust poll last week. All solicitors and judges operate under a similar system. Finland passed a law in 2003, which provides people with a statutory right of reply and news groups with a duty to correct – yet in eight out of the last ten years the country has come top in the World Press Freedom Index.

Leveson’s Inquiry, eight months of hearings, 650 witnesses, generating 6,000 pages of evidence did a brilliant job of exposing the depth of the media’s shortcomings – both criminal and the seven non-criminal sins listed in Democracy under attack: Why the media distort policy and politics: distortions, dumbed down content, more interested in politics than policy, hunting in packs, being too adversarial, too readily duped, too negative. Yesterday’s four volume, 2,000-word report will make this sorry saga more readily available. It’s not without its own shortcomings: silence on ownership; pretty feeble on the failures of the police investigations; even more feeble on Hutton’s closeness to Murdoch. Not even an easy read with cumbersome sub clauses sprayed everywhere, but undoubtedly on the right line in its proposals.

What happens now? Currently with both Labour and Lib Dems backing Leveson, plus up to 70 Conservative MPs who earlier endorsed statutory support, there is a Commons majority in favour of Leveson. The Government has agreed to produce a draft bill. It believes it will demonstrate the complexities. Meanwhile, there is still no consensus among editors on how independent of the industry the new body should be. Leveson is the eighth report since 1949. Currently it looks as though we’ll need a ninth. Shameful.

Malcolm Dean, is former Associate Editor of the Guardian and founder of Society Guardian. He is also author of Democracy under attack: Why the media distort policy and politics, due out in paperback in March 2013 with new forewords by Professor David R. Mayhew and Howard Glennerster and updated conclusions.

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