What do you do when an entire system fails?
The Leveson inquiry is revealing a problem for which there may not be a solution.
The evidence continues to accumulate at the Leveson inquiry as to the sheer scope of British media malpractice in the first decade of the 21st century. The inquiry is not only there to investigate what went wrong, but also to suggest proposals for reform and improvement. In the words of its detailed terms of reference, the inquiry is to make recommendations:
a. for a new more effective policy and regulatory regime which supports the integrity and freedom of the press, the plurality of the media, and its independence, including from Government, while encouraging the highest ethical and professional standards;
b. for how future concerns about press behaviour, media policy, regulation and cross-media ownership should be dealt with by all the relevant authorities, including Parliament, Government, the prosecuting authorities and the police;
c. the future conduct of relations between politicians and the press; and
d. the future conduct of relations between the police and the press.
However, what went wrong occurred when there was -- on the face of it -- the laws and the enforcement bodies already in place. The misconduct happened anyway.
In terms of law, there was the Data Protection Act, the Computer Misuse Act, and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. These statutes provided clear prohibitions in respect of almost all the "dark arts" of which we have heard; it was just that the legislation was not enforced. The PCC "Editors' Code of Practice" has -- on the face of it -- a sensible regime for guiding press behaviour. And, as with the black letter law, that also was not properly enforced.
One by one the enforcement bodies -- the Metropolitan Police, the Information Commissioner's Office, and the Press Complaints Commission -- had the opportunity to act, and, for whatever reasons, chose not to do so. Had only one of these entities discharged its obligations properly, then the illegal and immoral behaviour of the tabloids would have been significantly checked. Had all three done so, then the scandals may not have even occurred at all on any great scale.
Words on paper -- however well-intended and comprehensive -- have no greater meaning than enchantments in a book of spells unless they are translated into real-world action. Whatever are the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry, yet more words on paper will not be enough.
Perhaps there is nothing the Leveson inquiry can usefully recommend. As one eminent Victorian politician said in rebuke to another: problems may not actually have solutions. In the face of a general systemic failure of compliance and enforcement, then, the mere positing of a new system is futile.
Furthermore, the commercial and operational pressures of the tabloids over the last decade may now be changing. There is less scope for "celebrity exclusives" where the splashes are on the internet and communications between stars and those who follow them can be done directly, and not through a Show Business column. There are now different ways for tabloids to buy in their stories which are more cost effective.
The Leveson inquiry came about because a system failed comprehensively. And we may never have known, had it not been for the Royal Household complaining of hacking in a manner which could not be ignored (leading to the arrest of Clive Goodman and the seizure of Glen Mulcaire's notebooks), the investigative journalism of the Guardian and the New York Times, and the brilliant lawyering of Mark Lewis and Charlotte Harris. Between them, they were able to force results where the Metropolitan Police, the Information Commissioner, and the Press Complaints Commission all failed.
The value of the Leveson inquiry may therefore be in the accumulation of evidence and its documented exposure of routine illegal and unethical activity, rather than in any particular recommendations. The Leveson inquiry is simply telling us the story of what happens when an entire system fails.
David Allen Green is legal correspondent of New Statesman
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