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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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era