It's not all about Sienna

The missing witnesses at the Leveson inquiry are you and me.

Are tabloid readers just as responsible for the bad behaviour of the press as the hacks and paps? It's a question I've been asking myself over and over while the Leveson inquiry (or to give it its full name, the "Leveson inquiry into the culture and practices and ethics of the press") has been going on.

In a rather poignant reflection of the celebrity culture that fuelled this miserable business in the first place, the appearances of "big names" at Leveson have drawn bigger headlines and longer articles than those of more ordinary, more boring, less photogenic folk. Today's appearance by Sienna Miller will doubtless give the chance for trouser-rubbing picture editors to pore over her features once again. And so it was the case yesterday when Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents of missing child Madeleine, came to give evidence.

The couple spoke of how their privacy was invaded, how their shocked world was intruded upon by photographers and reporters alike, how private diaries were printed without their permission, and how they had to read rumours from police lines of inquiry presented as if they were legitimate versions of the truth. Anyone who has the merest sliver of empathy can only recoil in horror at how the parents of a missing child could feel under those circumstances.

But the hacks and paps didn't descend on Praia de Luz because they were out to get Kate and Gerry -- their privacy was just collateral damage. What they really wanted to do was flog papers -- and this was a story that had produced a reading frenzy, even bumping the Daily Express's traditional sales banker of Diana off the front page. Is it the fault of a profit-making enterprise to want to maximise sales at a time of decline? Or should those who hungrily sucked up the photos and stories of the McCanns bear some responsibility, too?

Nobody knows what sells papers; it's still a bit of a mystery even as the newspaper industry heads towards terminal decline. We can all guess and speculate. You can ask readers, but you will always have to bear in mind that people like to sound more ethical than they really are - who's going to fess up to feasting on trashy celebrity sleaze and intrusion into famous people's private lives, even in an anonymous survey?

But the heat and light generated by certain subjects and certain stories is easier to see now, thanks to the web, where our interests can be easier to see than what we'd admit to reading in a paper. That's why huge chunks of the Daily Mail's website, for example, are devoted to American minor celebrities you've never even heard of wearing bikinis; that's what guarantees traffic.

And that's why there was such a clamour for McCann stories back when the little girl went missing, and why stories about the mystery continue to be popular today. We want to read them, so the search for new angles continues; in that battle for fresh meat, it's not a massive surprise that some journalists will cross the line to get what they want. They do it because we want them to.

Additionally, it was a case that took place in Portugal, so newspapers were left unrestrained by those annoying obstacles of trying not to prejudice criminal proceedings and could say what they wanted while Robert Murat -arrested because the pack of hacks swarming around Praia de Luz decided he was a bit weird - and the McCanns were treated as suspects. It was a chilling glimpse into what would happen without reporting restrictions, a look into a world where journalists could simply write about ongoing cases without thinking of the consequences.

So while Leveson carries on, hearing from victims of phone hacking and journalistic wrongdoing, there's something missing. The other people responsible for this behaviour are getting away completely free of blame, without being scrutinised or having their actions looked at. The other perpetrators are us -- those who bought the newspapers in the first place. You or I might haughtily contend that we are above such things and we don't buy such garbage, but are we really not part of the problem? Do we really not contribute to a culture in which celebrity is seen as the peak of achievement, in which the lines between public and private are being erased all the time?

It would take a long time for Leveson to hear from the millions of people who bought papers because they wanted to read about Celebrity A's lovelife, or the misery of Family B as they were immersed in grief. But we can't pretend they don't exist. Or that we're not part of the problem.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation