Don’t rush to shackle press

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Brian Leveson has spoken, but in making the press accountable it is certainly not the last word. Before I go on, let me declare my interest; I have on a number of occasions been, in my opinion, maligned by minority elements of the press. Nothing as serious as has happened to people such as the Dowler family, but enough to cause me to meet with lawyers and seek copies of the Press Complaints Commission editor’s handbook to see how I might seek redress. The fact that I did not proceed had everything to do with the cost rather than the veracity of my arguments and has therefore left me with a rather jaundiced view of the behaviour of some people in the media.

But that behaviour is, I believe, all about individuals and the poor, sometimes amoral, business cultures they create around them rather than news titles being inherently good or bad. There were many good journalists on the News of the World just as there have been bad apples at the Daily Mirror – a paper with a longer record for phone hacking than any other (as I have revealed here previously).

The fact that I write opinion columns for a number of newspapers has not made me sympathetic to the press, quite the reverse. Just like anyone else, I often rail against what I read or how it is presented, but so long as there is the ability to challenge inaccuracies or have right of reply – as I have on occasion been granted – then much of what is wrong can be corrected. That does not mean the system is perfect, as Brian Leveson has shown clearly it is not, but before we rush to legislate to control the press I would argue that even underpinning a regulatory body with legislation introduces the opportunity for politicians to exercise 
control – and that has to be resisted.

So, what of the Leveson Report itself? Firstly, I think that David Cameron is entirely within his rights to step back from accepting every dot, comma and recommendation within it. Instituting an inquiry does not mean that the Prime Minister has to abdicate his judgement; he is not outsourcing his ability to act. He is entitled to agree with the general findings of the inquiry but disagree with how they might then be tackled. Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg could 
have done the same but there is a distinct whiff of opportunism about them simply agreeing to the report, in 
Miliband’s case even before it was published.

The second point that continues to stare us in the face is that the 
abhorrent activities of some in the press (such as phone hacking) were in fact illegal and if we ask the question, “would a regulatory body underpinned by law have prevented such illegal behaviour?”, then the obvious conclusion is that it would not. That might be an assertion on my part but it is self-evident that the reason phone hacking was so widespread was that no-one in the Metropolitan Police was prepared to prosecute that law.

Two things have happened that have changed the context in which Leveson was established – the first is that the moral outrage that surrounded the evidence presented before the House of Commons culture and media committee and Leveson’s inquiry caused the News of the World to be closed down. That sent substantial shock waves that have had a significant impact in the British media. The second is that prosecutions have been brought forward not just of the everyday reporters but of editorial staff who are now being accused of commissioning such illegal acts.

To hear some people speak about phone hacking you would think that no-one has yet been sent to jail – but it is the fact that journalists were successfully prosecuted and that this process has provided vital evidence (such as notebooks and diaries) that so many people are now able to find out just who was trying to hack their phones and thus lead to further prosecutions. It has also led to a hunt for e-mails and other instructions that might deal with the ghastly business culture that is now seen as so wrong. In other words the system, although bumbling at times, has begun to work. If there is anything we should be doing it is finding how we can make it work better rather than creating a quasi-licensing system of the press.

The third point that has to be considered is that Leveson’s suggestion of bringing Ofcom, the statutory regulator of broadcasting, into the role of overseeing a new regulator of the press is risible. If there is an area of the media where we should have most concern it is in the failure of bodies such as Ofcom to regulate broadcasters such as the BBC. Think Savile, think McAlpine, think Newsnight and think of the proven bias that the BBC is allowed to get away with.

Leveson’s report shows that the status quo is not acceptable – but the press already agrees with this. Better then to see what come of the moves to create a new regulatory body and how much teeth it has than have a new quango overseen by another quango to which a Secretary of State can appoint the chairman.