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
Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.