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.