It is a bit late for the press to be discovering rights

British newspapers will struggle to persuade readers to join them in righteous indignation over Leveson's proposals.

It is not at all surprising that the British press collectively rejects the idea of a law that might change the way journalists are expected to behave. The spectrum of published opinion starts with extreme contrition on behalf of the industry for terrible past deeds done, coupled with mealy-mouthed opposition to the remedy Lord Justice Leveson proposes. Then, at the other end, there is mealy-mouthed contrition and extreme opposition to Leveson.

The underlying point is always the same. It is that the press should be given time to get its own house in order before the chloroform of state intervention is uncorked. That is a natural enough position for journalists to take. It is my own instinctive position. The free press becomes conceptually less free when the boundaries of its legitimate activity are codified in law. Whether or not it would actually be less free with “statutory underpinning of an independent regulator” that Leveson envisages is a different matter.

But the argument isn't really about what the immediate outcome would be. To hacks themselves, their editors and proprietors this is a point of principle – pristine and immutable. Whatever statutory instrument Leveson devised, it was always going to look like a thin end of a wedge – or perhaps a slippery slope – to the affronted guardians of free speech.

British journalists might have a problem persuading their readers to join them at the giddy heights of moral indignation. Why? Well, for one thing, as advocates, the papers themselves are hardly without interest in the case. Titles that carried out vicious, cynical intrusions into the private lives of people sometimes experiencing harrowing trauma are now the ones most frothily resisting Leveson’s proposals for redress. In most people’s conceptions of justice, the accused does not get to decide where the boundaries of reasonable punishment lie.

But there is another reason why certain newspapers might struggle to mobilise the nation onto the barricades in defence of a lofty principle. The conservative press in particular has not, in recent years, had much truck with the sanctity of abstract rights when they interfere with the delivery of popular outcomes. Whether it is the case of Abu Qatada, tediously difficult to extradite because evidence used against him might have been tainted by torture, or the issue of prisoner voting rights, or the various debates that were had under the last government about anti-terrorism laws or, indeed, any judicial ruling that appears to reward villainy by recognising the intrinsic humanity of the accused, the British popular press has often – although not exclusively – chosen the path of raw populism and expediency.

I don’t for a moment want to equate phone hacking or breaches of the PCC code with acts of terrorism. That would be ridiculous. The point is not about equivalence of offence or some hierarchy of rights and freedoms. It isn’t even a point about consistency. It is simply an observation that, over a number of years, certain British newspapers have aggressively debunked the idea that a theoretical line drawn in the democratic ether should be a significant barrier to doing whatever it is politicians want to do. Now we the media are conjuring such a line and urging the politicians not to cross. Why would anyone listen?

Billboards in Wapping advertise the Sun. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for International Trade.

Only Nixon, it is said, could have gone to China. Only a politician with the impeccable Commie-bashing credentials of the 37th President had the political capital necessary to strike a deal with the People’s Republic of China.

Theresa May’s great hope is that only Liam Fox, the newly-installed Secretary of State for International Trade, has the Euro-bashing credentials to break the news to the Brexiteers that a deal between a post-Leave United Kingdom and China might be somewhat harder to negotiate than Vote Leave suggested.

The biggest item on the agenda: striking a deal that allows Britain to stay in the single market. Elsewhere, Fox should use his political capital with the Conservative right to wait longer to sign deals than a Remainer would have to, to avoid the United Kingdom being caught in a series of bad deals. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.