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Thursday, November 29, 2012 

Free press with all four volumes.

Despite everything that was said beforehand and will no doubt be bellowed from the editorials of the majority of the press tomorrow, Sir Brian Leveson's report is both cautious and carefully calculated.  When he started chairing the inquiry, he made clear that he had no intention of doing so if his final recommendations were to be ignored as the previous 6 commissions into the press more or less had been.  The almost 2,000 pages he's served up, and in such a relatively short period of time, itself extraordinary considering how long we've waited for other inquiries to report, reflect this precisely.  Politicians and the police are criticised, but for the most part in lawyerly language which declines to condemn them outright.  The tabloid press by contrast is excoriated, and considering that Leveson was limited in what he could write on phone hacking due to the upcoming trials, he couldn't have gone much further.

They can hardly say they weren't warned, and they also can't complain that it wasn't pretty much apparent from early on that statutory underpinning would be one of the key recommendations.  It cannot be stated often enough, and Leveson himself makes this point repeatedly, that the media as a whole have had plenty of opportunities to institute an effective, genuinely independent form of self-regulation.  They flunked the test in 1992, they failed again following the death of Princess Diana, and they refused to even admit there was a problem after both the jailing of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire and the publication of the What Price Privacy? report.  Indeed, the Press Complaints Commission all but guaranteed its own extinction when rather than criticise the News of the World, it chose to attack the Guardian for supposedly exaggerating its reports on the scale of hacking at the now closed paper.

Even after all this, some sections of the press have devoted their time to attacking Leveson personally rather than accepting that for too long there was a complete lack of ethics and morals in old Fleet Street.  Away from the News International stable, which has for the most part kept quiet, recognising if they were to get too involved in the "Free Speech Network" it would be taken even less seriously than it has been, the Daily Mail has upped the ante in their stead.

Long ago alerted to how heavily he would be personally criticised by Leveson, Paul Dacre gave the go-ahead for a fantastically amusing 12-page long hatchet job on adviser to the inquiry Sir David Bell, variously linked by the paper to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Common Purpose, the Media Standards Trust and the Orwell Prize, which dared to give an award to Johann Hari before it was rescinded.  Common Purpose for those not aware is one of the conspiratorial right's favourite organisations, as they deign to see its machinations behind everyone and everything vaguely on the left.  You expect the likes of James Delingpole to fall for such crap, but not Dacre, for the simple reason that he's not an idiot.  When he then splashes with a piece that describes CP as "a giant octopus" and "a quasi-masonic nexus", the only explanation has to be quite how rattled he is at the potential for a change in tabloid culture.

It's on this culture that Leveson is at his strongest.  His identification of the "aggressive defence" often made by the tabloids when they are subjected to even the merest criticism is spot on (pages 481-2 of Volume II), as is his noting of three separate parts to this defence, both the overt types of intimidation, such as the messages sent to Richard Peppiatt and the mother of Hugh Grant's child, the fear of or actual retaliation in the papers themselves, such as when JK Rowling's daughter was pictured in the press after she asked them not to publish her address, and lastly ad hominem criticism on third parties, such as the attacks on Justice Eady after he ruled in favour of Max Mosley.  Paul Dacre notably described Eady as "amoral" in a speech to the Society of Editors, a lecture he concluded with a whine about Nick Davies' Flat Earth News and how criticism of the "popular press" was doing huge, unjust harm to it.  There's been no suggestion Dacre has changed his mind since.

Where Leveson fails to do himself justice is in those half-hearted criticisms of both politicians and police.  David Cameron crowed in the Commons about how his party had been cleared of doing a deal with News International over the takeover of Sky in exchange for support at the election, something the judge was never going to be able to prove when any such deal was hardly going to be written down and all those involved would always strenuously deny any such thing took place.  Such deals are almost always conducted with a nod and a wink, not with a paper trail.

Cameron additionally claimed Jeremy Hunt had been cleared of all wrongdoing, which isn't quite the full truth.  Yes, Leveson does find there wasn't "any credible evidence of actual bias on the part of Mr Hunt", but he is highly critical of the role played by Hunt's special adviser Adam Smith in his dealings with News International's lobbyist Fred Michel, which do give rise to a "perception of bias".  As Labour argued at the time, ministers are responsible for their SpAds, and the idea that Hunt didn't know what Smith was doing is absurd.  If it hadn't been for the Graun's exposure of the Milly Dowler hacking, News International would now almost certainly be in full control of BSkyB, with all that would have entailed for press plurality.  Hunt would have been more than happy had the takeover gone ahead.

Much as Leveson's recommendations were expected, so was David Cameron's refusal to countenance any form of statutory regulation, including that of a simple underpinning.  To be fair to Cameron, he is in an almost impossible position: go along with legislation and he enrages a media which is already none too enthusiastic about him, as well as the Tory right; reject it and he risks being defeated by an unholy alliance of the Liberal Democrats, Labour and rebel Tories, while also going back on a pledge he made to support Leveson's proposals unless they were "bonkers".

The recommendations are not bonkers, but Cameron is right to be extremely wary.  The current form of press self-regulation has never been anything of the kind, and it's also the case that the current proposals for reform from Lords Hunt and Black are nowhere near good enough.  They are the continuation of the failed cartel of the past, as the Independent, Evening Standard, Guardian and Financial Times have also recognised.  Leveson's recommendations on how they can be improved are excellent, and to judge from Trevor Kavanagh's appearance on Newsnight, even the old Fleet Street die-hards seems to realise that nothing less than their implementation will be sufficient.  If an agreement can be reached between media groups, then Leveson's proposed statutory underpinning might not be necessary, as the judge himself makes clear.

If this banging of heads together fails to result in an improvement, however, there seems little option other than to implement the statutory part of Leveson's proposals.  For all the hysterical bawling about Mugabe and Iran, and how even the merest form of legislation could lead to a slippery slope, something that isn't always a fallacious argument, we really should try everything other than statute.  The point surely though is that we've been here before.  To descend into the clich├ęd analogies of the day, much as we don't want to cross the rubicon, staying in the last chance saloon for one more round isn't going to cut it either.  

Unless a personal intervention from a cross-party delegation can convince the press groupings to put aside their personal differences and hang-ups to organise a truly independent form of self-regulation, then the government is going to have to step in.  This might be horrendously unfair on the former broadsheets, most magazines and the regional press, but it's been the hubris of the populars and their editors that have led inexorably to this point.  Nemesis has duly followed.  The least Dacre, Desmond, Murdoch and Trinity Mirror can do now is ensure that their failures and abuses don't lead to restrictions across the board.

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