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.

Photo: Getty
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I’m in the kitchen with my children, finally learning how to sharpen a knife

For some reason, they have often given me sharp things as presents.

The children have been with me quite a bit lately: they are all going to be, by the time you read this, on their travels, and the Hovel is a useful staging-post for the start of their journeys. Staying here means an extra hour in bed when you have to take a coach from Victoria, or a plane from Stansted or, worse, Luton.

Their company never fails to delight, which is not how I imagined things would turn out. I was a surly clock-watcher at my own parents’ home, counting the days until I could cast off the oppressive yoke of having my meals cooked for me and my laundry done. That was how it was back then. Nowadays, parents try to close the gap between themselves and their children or, even if they don’t try, the gap seems to be closing anyway.

I suppose not being in situ for ten years, on the ground doing the daily heavy lifting, helps. I am not the monstrous, Freudian oppressor-figure: I am the messy layabout with a certain weird kind of authority but not one who assumes the moral high ground. But here they are, or were, and as they get older they get increasingly interesting, more pleasing to be with. And the interesting thing is that they now have skills that I can learn. The traffic of instruction is not one-way.

My daughter worked, for a while, in the kitchen of a restaurant in Berlin. She already knew how to cook, and how to get along with people, but there she also learned how to sharpen knives. I thought I could, but I can’t, not at all.

When you see a father – invariably a father – zinging a honing steel along the blade of a knife prior to carving the Sunday roast, he is not doing anything useful apart from establishing a sense of theatre, which is of debatable utility anyway. He might think he’s a cross between Zorro and Anthony Bourdain, the rather cool New York chef – there’s always a certain flourish in the wrist action – but the trained chef will raise an eyebrow.

For some reason my children have often given me sharp things as presents. For my first Christmas in the Hovel they gave me a Swiss Army Knife, which I still use, especially the corkscrew; one birthday they gave me a pizza-cutter in the shape of the original Starship Enterprise – which I still use. And last birthday, the boys clubbed together to get me a proper kitchen knife.

I had hitherto resisted the notion of getting one, despite the fact that I like cooking and also know how important a good knife is. Here is Bourdain himself, writing in his Les Halles Cookbook (the only one I ever use these days): “Your knife, more than any other piece of equipment in the kitchen, is an extension of the self, an expression of your skills, ability, experience, dreams and desires.”

I suppose this was why I put up with rubbish knives for so long: my dreams and desires were second-rate. I was cooking on an electric hob, mostly for myself; besides, I wasn’t going to be here forever. What the hell was I going to do with a decent knife? Also, I have a healthy respect for sharpness, and whenever I cut meat up with a good blade, I imagine that blade cutting into my own weak flesh, and see vividly, the wound it makes.

But a good knife needs to be looked after, and my daughter, who was given a Japanese chef’s knife as a parting gift from her fellow kitchen workers, learned how to use a water stone, and last weekend taught me.

It is fascinating, and soothing, sharpening a knife. You have to gauge the correct angle at which to place the blade against the stone. You have to feel, with the pads of your fingers, the sharpness of the knife itself, and the burr that results on one side of it after a few dozen passes over the stone. One is aware that sharpening is about shaving steel, almost by molecules at a time, a process that has no theoretical end, except when, one day, the knife itself is sharpened to invisibility.

I am reminded of the fabled measure of eternity: the bird who sharpens his beak against the rock of a mile-high mountain once every hundred years. When the mountain is worn down, a mere day of eternity will have passed.

Meanwhile, the daughter passes the knife across the stone, dips her fingers in a bowl of water, sprinkles it over the stone, and repeats the passing. The father sits there, absorbed in her skill, wondering at this inversion of the traditional learning process. “Here,” she says, handing over knife and stone. “You have a go.” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder