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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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