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
Show Hide image

David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.