Each side in the Leveson debate naturally prefers to cast their position in terms of highest principle. Ed Miliband champions the cause of victims of cynical and grotesque press intrusion; David Cameron resists the subordination of ancient liberties to the dead hand of state regulation. There are, of course, other calculations at work.
The Prime Minister has pulled out of cross-party talks aimed at finding a compromise Leveson-lite model and thereby precipitated a vote in parliament at the start of next week. In practice, there may have been some arcane middle way that guarantees free speech and also gives legal force to mechanisms supporting victims of shabby practice seeking redress – but no-one could see what it looked like and there were no political points on offer for waiting around to find it.
Cameron surely realised that any version of regulation with a statutory underpinning would be denounced as the thin end of a Stasi-shaped censorship wedge by most newspapers, while anything less would be presented as craven capitulation to press baron pressure.
He has chosen to weather the charge of cronyism if it means being feted on Fleet Street. In fact, he made that choice the moment the Leveson report was published, when – after a skim read – he saw that he was spared the most conspiratorial interpretation of his and Jeremy Hunt’s relations with News International and felt exonerated. That day he announced he preferred to avoid statutory regulation and the inky praise was duly dispersed in most papers the following morning.
Miliband, by contrast, could hardly renege on his own commitment to stand by the Leveson process, which meant, to some degree at least, seeing its proposals enacted in law. The creation of the inquiry is seen by many on the Labour side as their leader’s finest hour. Denouncing Rupert Murdoch’s Evil Empire and demanding justice for the victims was a gamble that looked at the time to have paid off handsomely. It was a concrete piece of evidence of the Labour leader’s otherwise rather abstract claim to be a crusader against stale orthodoxies and cosy establishments.
As it happens, Miliband didn’t destroy the feral Fleet Street beast or prise it away from its prejudiced proprietors. He just made them angry. Cameron surely recognises that it does him no harm to befriend the wounded animal, hoping to benefit when it savages the leader of the opposition – as it certainly will. It might, in that context, be tempting to see Miliband’s dedication to the Leveson cause as a blunder. It certainly doesn’t win him many friends in the journalistic fraternity.
But then again, how likely was it really that the Mail, the Sun, the Express, the Telegraph, the Standard or the Times were ever going to support Miliband? Their editorial positions are firmly entrenched on the right. When they attack the government it tends to be in the shrillest terms for lacking conservative rigour. What could Miliband possibly do to appeal to those organs that would also be consistent with the person he is and the politics he wants to pursue? One of the things he has going for him – something more thoughtful Tory MPs privately concede – is that he is recognised in Westminster as a man who believes in something other than raw political gain. The Miliband candidacy, come the election, will be presented in terms of a leader who stands by his convictions, even if it doesn’t look popular or clever at the time. Leveson is one of those things. (I don’t say this because I’m persuaded it will work, only because I strongly suspect this is how the issue will be viewed within Team Miliband.)
And, come May 2015, what difference will the newspapers make? Who under the age of 30 buys a newspaper these days? Could the Conservative-supporting press swing the election for Cameron in 2010? Did a concerted, ferocious press assault on the Liberal Democrats in the run up to the Eastleigh by-election cost them the seat? No.
The painful truth for print journalists (and I know it’s painful, because I am one and it hurts) is that obsolescence is creeping upon us at an alarming rate. The public are barely more respectful of newspaper hacks than they are of politicians, so no-one is impressed when the latter defend the freedoms of the former and are thanked for it with lavish praise in editorial columns read mostly by other journalists and politicians. Besides, no newspaper will endorse a candidate who looks like a loser. By 2015 that cap could just as easily fit Cameron as Miliband.
Ultimately, each side in this Leveson row has chosen the path that is rational given his circumstances. Cameron has nothing to gain by making enemies on the right-wing corner of Fleet Street and Miliband has nothing much to lose.