Less transparent than a papal election

The government's secret political manoeuvres to create an alternative to Leveson undermine any claims they might have had to upholding the "Leveson principles".

Less than two hours after the Leveson report was published – just over 24 hours after he gained first sight of it – the Prime Minister rejected the report's central recommendation. But, in his same Parliamentary statement, he committed to creating a new, independent system of press self-regulation that adhered to the Leveson principles.

Having rejected the first he is now failing on the second.

Central to Leveson's criticisms of previous self-regulatory systems was the way in which they were set up. Each time, Leveson said, the industry focused on its own needs and not those of the public. Each time the result was a system that served the industry well but failed the public. Any new system, Leveson makes clear, should be set up in consultation with, and with the direct involvement of, the public - including the victims of press abuse.

This did not happen with the plan submitted by the industry to the Leveson Inquiry – the so-called "Hunt/Black" plan. The judge said he found it remarkable that, even after all the revelations about phone hacking and press abuse, Lords Hunt and Black could develop a proposal without involving victims, civil society groups or working journalists.

Leveson writes:

I find it extraordinary that, given the acceptance by Lord Black and the newspaper industry that the current system of press regulation has lost public confidence, they did not regard public views on the matter as of sufficient interest or importance to make any effort to ascertain them. I find it more extraordinary that, having had its attention drawn to this point by the Inquiry, there is still no sign of the industry making any effort to understand public expectations in relation to press standards. This lack of interest in the views of the public may be symptomatic of the approach that the press has consistently taken towards regulation over many decades. It demonstrates the extent to which the press continue to prioritise their own interests, with consideration of the wider public interest only in as much as it applies to the importance of protecting the freedom of the press, and only then to the extent that they can appoint themselves the arbiter of it.

As a result, the industry's plan, like so many others before it, was biased against the public, and against the victims of press abuse. "It is important to note," the judge writes on page 1622, "that the proposal put forward by Lord Black gives no rights of any sort to members of the public". This is why, he says, so many previous systems have failed and why the new one must be built differently. "I have said, many times," he continues, "that any new regulatory system must work for the public and for a system to work for the public it should have the rights and interests of the public at its heart." The proposal put forward by the industry "manifestly fails that test."

If there was ever a "Leveson principle", this is it. A new system of independent self-regulation cannot be credible if it is not developed with the public at its heart, and done in an open, transparent and accountable way.

Yet this is the opposite of what is happening. A new system is being developed, at great speed, by senior government ministers and officials, and by newspaper editors and senior executives, entirely behind closed doors. Senior government figures are, we are told, devising an alternative to Leveson based on "Royal Charter", a use of Royal prerogative created almost a millennium ago and used mainly in the medieval and early modern period.

A more opaque, Byzantine solution to the problem Leveson was seeking to address would be difficult to invent. A less democratic, open and transparent vehicle is hard to conceive.

At the same time a group of editors and senior executives are meeting, it is reported, on an almost daily basis to thrash out a new system of self-regulation that is "Leveson-compliant". We do not know how they define Leveson-compliant, or even who is meeting or when since the process is shrouded in darkness.

At no stage in the last three weeks have either the editors or the government sought to make the process open or sought to include the victims, civil society groups, or working journalists.

To devise a solution in such an occluded and secretive manner contradicts the first Levesonian principle. If it does not change it will be the second betrayal of the public and victims in almost as many weeks.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.