Alf Young: Leveson’s answers to yesterday’s problems

Lord Leveson cast his eye over a British media culture that may be beyond redemption. Picture: Getty
Lord Leveson cast his eye over a British media culture that may be beyond redemption. Picture: Getty
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Leveson’s findings are all very well, but in a shifting media landscape they’re in danger of being left behind, writes Alf Young

LORD Justice Leveson’s million-word-plus report on his year-long inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the printed press in the UK has emerged into a media and political landscape where the numerical tide is running powerfully in a quite contrary direction. One that, if it continues unabated, could leave both the press and mainstream party politics, as it is currently practised, beached and abandoned, the flotsam of a bygone age.

Readership of newspapers in their printed form continues to ebb away in a seemingly remorseless decline that started in the 1990s, as owners and editors still struggle to come to terms with the rise of social media and the internet revolution. Confronted with the kind of illegal and corrupt journalistic practices that formed the backdrop to his lordship being asked to undertake this task in the first place, more people are voting with their wallets and finding their news and entertainment elsewhere.

I started buying newspapers and magazines I could ill-afford as a 15-year-old, when I was still at school. My local newsagent, when selling me my title of choice, used to observe: “You know, I’ve only one other customer who buys the Guardian. He works at IBM and he’s writing a book about Greenock. He’s writing it in an old bank ledger.” I later discovered that customer was Alan Sharp. When not sweeping floors in Spango Valley, he was penning his first novel, A Green Tree in Gedde.

Back then politics still mattered to most people. My father took me to election rallies that could fill Green’s Playhouse in Glasgow with more than two thousand involved citizens. On Thursday, as Lord Leveson was revealing his findings, the electors of Rotherham, Middlesbrough and Croydon North were being asked to choose new MPs to represent them in Westminster.

Turnouts were a pathetic 33.8 per cent, 26 per cent and 26.4 per cent respectively. UKIP came second in the first two and third in Croyden.

In Rotherham, where Labour retained the seat, despite the former MP resigning after being embroiled in yet another expenses scandal, the Tory came fifth, behind both the BNP and George Galloway’s Respect Party. The Lib Dem in that South Yorkshire seat plunged to an unprecedented eighth place.

So, with almost all newspapers struggling to retain paid-for readers and the mainstream political parties finding members hard to come by and voters increasingly fickle, what chance a post-Leveson settlement that will restore some semblance of public trust in either troubled domain? The initial omens, emerging before anyone has yet had time to digest Leveson in any depth, are not encouraging.

We’ve had defenders of a publish-and-be-damned free press, like Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, gagging to be the first to be banged up, martyred in its defence. There have been absurd warnings that Leveson’s clever package opens the door to Mugabe-style state control. And we’ve a Prime Minister who struggles to bring any real leadership to the task of meeting these profound challenges.

A few days before Leveson reported, David Cameron was promising to legislate, provided his lordship’s report wasn’t “bonkers”. Just over an hour after the judge sent the ball back into the politicians’ court, urging them to decide “who guards the guardians”, the Prime Minister was describing the kind of legal underpinning Leveson envisages for his form of “independent regulation of the press, organised by the press itself” as an issue of principle the government could not stomach. “For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land,” he told MPs.

Both Nick Clegg, Cameron’s coalition partner, and Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition, begged to differ. So does a significant minority in Cameron’s own party. Later it emerged he had crossed that Rubicon anyway, at least on paper, by instructing civil servants to come up with draft legislation within weeks, presumably to show how unworkable it would all prove to be.

But the real Rubicon was crossed years ago. When some journalists started hacking phones, bribing officials and generally “wreaking havoc”, as Leveson puts it, in the lives of innocent people in the name of investigative reporting. It was also crossed when political leaders of all parties decided courting press barons like Rupert Murdoch assiduously ranked right at the top of their agendas and the links between journalists and arms of the state, notably the police, became incestuously close.

I have spent more than 30 years in a trade I still believe can be, at its best, a powerful force for good, shining light into dark places, as I would sometimes put it. “A critical witness to events”, in one of Leveson’s formulations. But to do that effectively, and without fear or favour, all of us as journalists need to sup with those with power we write about with a suitably long spoon.

Many of the commentators in those newspapers most vociferously opposed to Leveson and his ideas have long since taken to talking about the Prime Minister as Dave. That speaks of a press that, far from being, in Leveson’s approving phrase “irreverent, unruly and opinionated” sees itself as instinctively partisan and fawningly familiar, a poodle that occasionally bites.

Anyone who knows anything about the workings of the Press Complaints Commission knows it has long been a toothless cipher. Leveson offers the possibility of a system of independent self-regulation, free of both political and industry control, one with legal legitimacy. Far from putting an agent of government, let alone a policeman into every newsroom, he also wants to enshrine in that underpinning legislation “a legal duty on the government to protect the freedom of the press”.

If politicians were to act together to make that happen, what Rubicon would be crossed then? If David Cameron’s precious principles are about keeping the libertarian right in his government and on his backbenches in line and about cosying up, yet again, to those press barons who have learnt nothing from the scandalous intrusions they have presided over in recent years, in the hope of support in 2015, he should think again. The public mood is clearly against him.

Our own First Minister is trying to promote a made-in-Scotland alternative to Leveson’s proposals. Before he does that, he should reflect on the possible consequences. Patterns of newspaper readership across these islands are now part of our social union. London-based titles are as readily available here as Scottish-based ones.

If distinctive systems of regulation are to be adopted north and south of the Border, chaos would quickly follow. Complaints could be pursued in whichever jurisdiction success seemed more likely.

Titles with cross-border penetration would have to serve two regulators.

Part of the social union the SNP always claims it wants to see continue, whether Scotland becomes independent or not, would be placed in jeopardy.

On any reading of Leveson, Alex Salmond narrowly escaped censure from Leveson over his plans to lobby UK ministers over News Corporation’s 2010 BSkyB bid.

He could best serve the cause of more effective press regulation by lobbying the Prime Minister to see sense and come up with a workable industry-led regulatory package on Leveson lines rather than, in that old newsroom phrase, start by trying to put a kilt on the story.