Leveson is dead - business as usual will continue

There will be a "tougher" press regulator, we are told. But what of all the hours of testimony and hard-fought recommendations in the Leveson report? Were they all for nothing?

 

Well, that’s that. Leveson is dead.

After dozens of witnesses, hours of testimony, pages of reports and a series of recommendations, the end result is that there is no end result. It’s business as usual. Everything will continue just as it always did – and if you don’t like it, tough.

David Cameron has today told Nick Clegg, his Coalition partner, and Ed Miliband, the opposition leader, that the ideological gap between them on press regulation was "too great" to be bridged. His reason for rejecting a state-underpinned regulator – that laws are subject to change – may seem an odd one for a lawmaker to make, but that’s that.

Perhaps it is just another less important matter, along with minimum alcohol pricing, being kicked into the long grass as Cameron prepares for 2015. Perhaps enough time has passed since Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry was current. Do we care about press regulation now that the phonehacking furore has died down?

The arrests keep piling up and trials are pending, but the issue has faded from the public consciousness. It is no longer a big story, or a big deal.

There will be a "tougher" press regulator, we are told; we must wait for the details. Will it have real power, or real bite? Or will it be more of the same self-serving pretence that a page 97 apology is somehow catastrophic for a multi-million-pound business? And will whatever sanctions it has at its disposal – an angry finger-wagging, or a severe telling-off and an "I’m very disappointed in you" – be sufficient redress for those who suffer at the hands of Her Majesty’s Press?  

True, there are self-serving celebrities who see genuine press intrusion as a handy tool to save themselves from future hassle. There are people who should be exposed by the press; there are public figures who demand to be investigated. Any threat to that would be a threat to our most basic freedoms of expression. But the key question is: would that have been threatened by what Lord Justice Leveson proposed?

Those who portrayed any kind of state-backed regulation as an anti-freedom bogeyman, who said that we would have been going down the road of Russia and China, have won. Their fears have been heard. But it is not impossible to conceive of a place where state-underpinned regulation isn’t necessarily the brutalising tyranny of a totalitarian regime. Some of the bleating about freedom from people who couldn’t care less about it has been disingenuous at best.

There’s one other thing worth mentioning. What does the public think? You know, real people: the ones who end up in newspapers whether they like it or not, through a trick of fate or a set of circumstances; the people who don’t have expensive lawyers to fight their battles for them if they are lied about. Does it matter that their wishes are largely ignored in all these debates? Or should we just consider this to be the way things are: the public might well want a proper press regulator, but they’re jolly well not going to be allowed one.

Lord Puttnam’s attempt to sneak Leveson in by the back door served only to damage the chances of significant libel reform and prove right those who said press reform would just be used as a political football. If anything is going to change now, it will have to happen with a change of Government – if at all.

But would any future Prime Minister want a battle royale with the press to be the first skirmish of their premiership? It’s not unimaginable that other things would be seen as more important priorities, not just because of convenience but because, well, the country is in a mess and press regulation shouldn’t be the number one priority for anyone coming to power. That isn’t to say you can’t fix the economy and sort out the excesses of the fourth estate; but it is a rather convenient excuse, should you wish to delay that confrontation for another day.

In the meantime, that’s that. We get a new regulator and everything will somehow be fixed. Everything will carry on very much the same and Leveson was for nothing.

Well done, everybody. 

 

Photograph: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.