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
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses