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

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.