WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Melanie Philips stole my Muslim transsexual baby, forcing me to eat my cat, which gave me cancer

The claim that the public benefits from a "raucous press" is almost entirely fictional. In the meantime, the likes of Lucy Meadows are trampled on.

I have never had any dealings with Melanie Phillips, never had a baby and never eaten cat (to the best of my knowledge – although, these days who can say with certainty?). I just thought it appropriate to emblazon a sensational title across the top of this piece, which has nothing whatsoever to do with its content or the truth. My thinking was, in the words of Kelvin MacKenzie, "If it sounds right, lob it in."

This is, apparently, the way in which a "raucous press" must be allowed to behave, otherwise Britain will turn into Iran or North Korea or both at the same time. Essentially, "raucous" boils down to the idea that the public should put up with papers behaving badly, because there are significant benefits. This is the plain argument behind all the elegant rhetoric. And it’s not a bad one, but it must be accompanied by an explanation of the benefits, tangible, rather than theoretic.

There is an unacknowledged tension at the centre of the debate. The free press is already unfree – there, I said it. Ninety per cent of national titles are owned by a very small group of billionaires, the majority of them based abroad. The international Press Freedom Index, compiled largely from the responses of people in or related to the industry, ranked the UK at 29 this year. The top country according to the index is Finland, which has a system of self regulation, fully underpinned by statute, very similar to what is being proposed.

There is a business aspect to what we do. We work for commercial organisations with commercial considerations. The environment is so highly competitive that it can push journalists to excess. It is a great myth to suggest that the public interest is the primary preoccupation of these companies. It may be in the mix – for some more than others – but dominant is the imperative to sell copies and generate website traffic. The public interest and the commercial interest can, and often do, clash. Inside our heads, we might be Superman, vigilante hero from Krypton. To the world, we’re just Clark Kent, salaried employee of the Daily Planet.

If we want people to collectively and individually support a request for special dispensation, we must demonstrate what they might get in return. Otherwise, it is just a carte blanche to vandalise people’s lives for some romanticised past or speculative future good. If we wish to put ourselves forward as defenders of constitutional freedom and democracy, then we have to take that role seriously. Having hissy fits about state involvement in our own regulation, while applauding Theresa May for trying to impose her will on the Qatada case, is hypocrisy. A constitutional role is not a Groucho Marx nose on a bit of elastic, to be worn only when it suits one.

Then, there is the total denial of the cavalier "lob it in" attitude which brought the inhabitants of the Fourth Estate to the cusp of their first ASBO. Such a lack of contrition and reflection is an insurmountable obstacle to rehabilitation. It reinforces the argument that we cannot regulate ourselves. Cheap, personal attacks on celebrities who support statutory regulation are symptoms of our very malaise. Louise Mensch’s "two Churchillian fingers" to Hacked Off, is an insult to the ordinary people who found themselves at the centre of a press feeding frenzy. How can anyone trust an industry to put its own house in order when it suggests, increasingly, that it did nothing wrong?

Many point to the MPs' expenses scandal as the brightest recent example of the press holding the powerful to account. But let us also remember that the story was exposed and pursued largely by papers, which did not engage in the sort of conduct which was the subject of the Leveson inquiry. As a matter of fact, Rebekah Brooks turned down the story when it was brought to her. Perhaps minor celebrity A had been telescopically photographed putting Appendix X into minor celebrity B that day, so space was scarce. The truth is that if anybody illegally hacks the phones of a few hundred powerful people, they will occasionally come up with stories which are in the public interest. It does not follow that this was their motive.

"Anything bad that happened is already unlawful", is a popular argument. But what about the death of Lucy Meadows and the way she was treated by the media? Is that not a perfect example of conduct which may not have been unlawful, but could have been covered by a strong code of ethics? "It’s covered by existing regulation", a colleague suggested (apparently articles 3, 4 and 6 of the PCC code), "the issue, as ever, is one of enforcement, not a lack of rules".

To whom is this plea for better enforcement directed? It can’t be to the police, whom the press had been bribing into breaking the law. It can’t be to the state, which the press resolutely rejects as an overseer. It can’t be to the PCC (or a variation thereof) which has shown itself to be completely ineffective. It can’t be to individuals within the press itself – if there were a general understanding that this kind of reporting is wrong, it wouldn’t have happened. So, who is left to oversee us? We have corrupted, manipulated and undermined all other instruments of regulation, only to bleat about the enforced remaining alternatives.

Membership of the PCC is proof that newspapers accept the principle that they must operate within restraints which go beyond what is merely unlawful. The rejection of a robust way of enforcing such a code shows that they are only happy to do so in circumstances where enforcement is weak and toothless. In other words, we will agree to comply, provided we can get away with not complying. I have a lot of sympathy for constitutional arguments against state involvement. But when the continuum between an unfettered press and self regulation has been tried and has failed, what is left?

We have made it very clear what we don’t like, but not what alternative we propose. This is the question to which I have not yet seen a cogent answer. All I have seen is a cleverly reformulated plea: to continue to be allowed to behave appallingly, to trample the likes of Lucy Meadows, to invade people’s private lives with catastrophic results – all in exchange for some fictional benefit: the vague notion that, while we are looking for cheap smut, we may stumble across something of actual value to the nation.

Former Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie leaves the High Court after giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry on January 9, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.