There are certain things which are less interesting in themselves than for the impact they have on other people.
Take for example the “Occupy LSX” protest. Whatever the protest stands for — and there are varied and sometimes conflicting views on this — its mere existence was enough to cause a mild crisis in the Church of England and to expose starkly the casual idiocy of those who managed a great cathedral. Now it is forcing the opaque and undemocratic Corporation of London to the High Court to defend its attempt to use legal coercion to evict the protest. And so we have the merry spectacle of a powerful and essentially private body — with no real electoral legitimacy whatsoever — trying to bandy “public interest” and “free expression” arguments as if they knew or cared what those concepts meant.
Or look at Julian Assange. Whatever the merits of his continual refusal to return to Sweden to be questioned about serious sexual assault and rape allegations, and notwithstanding the silly and counter-productive litigation tactics he adopted at the start of his extradition case, he has now inadvertently got the issue of the illiberal European Arrest Warrant (EAW) regime squarely before the Supreme Court. The question to be decided is a narrow one, and it is more likely or not that he will lose, but there are serious general questions to be asked about the use and misuse of EAWs and — almost despite himself — it may well be that this generally irresponsible charlatan will form the basis of a progressive shift in the judicial treatment of these over-powerful legal weapons.
And most of all, there is the Leveson inquiry. It cannot be over-emphasised how this inquiry did not come about as a natural consequence of a working political process. Indeed, had it not been that the Metropolitan police just had to do something back in 2005 when it was obvious the mobiles of the Royal Household were being tampered with, then there would not have been the convictions of Glen Mulcaire and Clive Goodman and — significantly — no seizure of Mulcaire’s notebooks. In turn, there would not have been any civil litigation which uncovered the “For Neville” email and so no Gordon Taylor case. And without that litigation, there would not have been what was uncovered by last year’s New York Times exposé and the dogged journalism of Nick Davies and the Guardian, and without David Cameron’s lousy judgment in appointing Andrew Coulson there would have not been a political need to call an inquiry. All for the want of a less clumsy hack of Prince William’s phone, the News of the World and the credibility of the British tabloid press were lost.
Along the way, each entity with the formal power and public responsibility to address the unlawful and unethical practices of the tabloid press failed to do so. The Metropolitan police closed down the investigation for no good reason; the Information Commissioner’s Office took as little action as it could; and the Press Complaints Commission nodded along to what the tabloids told it. But once the scandal emerged then this lack of activity could not be sustained or justified. Something had to give.
What made the difference was the revelation that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked. Contrary to the self-serving misdirections of those who appear to have learned nothing from the public outrage, the true significance of that sensational news was not because there had been deletions. It was instead that, at a stroke, it was apparent that hacking was not restricted to celebrities. Anyone caught up in a news story over a five to ten year period may well have had their phone hacked: soldiers, terrorism survivors, grieving or concerned parents, as well as missing school children. The spite and intrusions of the tabloids were no longer the trivial problem of famous people.
However, the true value of the Leveson Inquiry will probably not be in its proposals. No two media pundits seem to agree what would work to make the tabloid press ethical. It certainly would not be new laws and codes and enforcement bodies: all those were in place, and the abuses happened anyway. So the Leveson Inquiry undoubtedly will not so much be important for what it proposes, but what it has allowed to be revealed about others — currently the tabloids, and soon the police. It will show what was actually going on all the time, whilst the formal public bodies did nothing to stop it.
There is something rotten about a political system where the true nature of power relations — the very stuff of politics — is routinely exposed by external events. No political system is perfect; but it is not wrong to expect a political system to be able to work in some fashion. Power will always tend to corrupt, and those with power will always tend to abuse it. One good test of a mature political system is to recognise and check these tendencies. But few, if any, would say that the British political system is now working at all well.
David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman