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Leader: Leveson, the press and transparency

The negotiations over press regulation have all the makings of the kind of cosy establishment stitch-up that has allowed journalistic malpractice to flourish for so long.

Soon after Lord Justice Leveson published the results of his inquiry into press ethics and culture, public debate on the subject came to be dominated by the threat that any implementation of his central recommendations might pose to the principle of free speech. There has been less emphasis on the best way to protect members of the public from the kinds of offences – abuse of privacy, trampling on dignity, bullying, corruption and callous disregard for basic human decency – that the Leveson process exposed.

There is a simple enough reason for that imbalance. The terms of public debate are decided by newspapers and they have an obvious interest in talking about something other than their moral shortcomings and the long failure of their flimsy system of self-regulation. When journalistic practice is, in effect, in the dock, the accused publications do not make the best court reporters – and they certainly cannot be relied upon as jurors.

None of this is to diminish the threat that an ill-considered rush to legislate would pose. The New Statesman remains deeply sceptical of the view that only parliamentary statute can enforce best practice in the media. At the same time, it is plainly absurd to find in the report or in the agenda of those MPs from all parties who support its conclusions a sinister plan to impose state control. Some of Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals are flawed and his stipulations – especially with regard to declarations of off-the-record contact and enforcement of data protection law – show a lack of appreciation for the way public-interest journalism sometimes has to work.

Yet he could not have tried harder to emphasise his determination to avoid creating a charter for political interference. The spectre of a British dictatorship, even when conjured at the end of slippery metaphorical slopes, resides almost exclusively in the fantasies of those commentators and editors whose preference is for the status quo.

Fleet Street’s belief in the sanctity of press freedom is sincere. It is also probable that the Prime Minister’s actions are informed by sincere liberal impulses. It is nonetheless impossible that David Cameron is blind to the political advantages of landing on the same side of this debate as the majority of influential editors, commentators and media proprietors in the land, most of whom are on the right.

The Tory leader knows that the public pays a lot less attention to a candidate’s attitude to press regulation than newspapers do when calibrating their allegiances. That calculation has not featured prominently in the reporting of the matter.

Also patchily covered was the meeting at 10 Downing Street, within days of the report being published, of an ad hoc caucus of senior newspaper editors. There was no obvious basis for the group’s compo­sition. Editors not present included those of Private Eye and the Observer, while the Independent on Sunday had to request an in­vitation specifically, after being overlooked. More Conservative-leaning Sunday papers were, however, represented. The New Statesman was excluded, leaving the Spectator – whose Conservative-supporting editor ruled out any participation in a Leveson-modelled regulatory regime even before the report was published – to represent periodicals. The London Evening Standard was the only regional paper represented.

The Prime Minister addressed the group. Presumably he did not claim to be speaking purely in his capacity as Conservative leader. Yet no Liberal Democrat was present, despite a clear recognition in parliament that Mr Cameron does not take the same position as his coalition partners and so cannot speak exclusively for the government on Leveson. However, two Tory peers, Lord Hunt and Lord Black (the executive director of the Telegraph Media Group), were present.

There is nothing wrong with newspaper editors and chief executives gathering informally to decide how they ought to respond to an important political development affecting their industry. When that meeting takes place inside Downing Street, at the invitation of the Prime Minister, it auto­matically acquires a different status and demands a different level of rigour and transparency. Has Mr Cameron mandated this group with some unique competence to represent “the press”? If so, on what authority? And what is this press of which he speaks?

The explicit purpose of the discussions is to give newspapers an opportunity to devise some new form of self-regulation that will come close enough to what Lord Justice Leveson proposes without requiring a bill in parliament. Another way of describing the same goal is that the editors (and/or their paymasters) have been invited to come up with something lenient enough for their own satisfaction, yet that looks sufficiently rigorous to give Mr Cameron political cover to say that the spirit of Leveson is preserved. In other words, it has all the makings of the kind of cosy establishment stitch-up that has allowed journalistic malpractice to flourish for so long.

The awkward truth for all concerned is that the press is a shrinking corner of the media landscape. So many of our newspapers are losing tens of millions in income each year. There are urgent debates to be had about the protection of free speech, the boundaries of acceptable discourse and what constitutes invasion of privacy – online. The clubbable disquisitions of newspaper editors are as relevant to the moral and legal challenges thrown up by the digital revolution as the concerns of monasteries were when the printing press threatened their monopoly on scripture.

What matters most in this case is not the system the editors’ club conveniently devises to let itself off the hook of statutory regulation but the perception that the process is honest, transparent and driven by respect for victims of press abuse as well as the principle of free expression. It must demonstrate a diligent pursuit of the public interest at all times and not just the self-interest of an insecure industry with a history as rich in craven deference to government as it is accomplished in heroic truth-telling to power. If the collective objective of the press is to uphold the principle of independence from political influence, behaving in a way that can easily be depicted as complicity with a Tory agenda is not the best way to pursue it.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.