With his long awaited report well and truly kicked into the long grass, Lord Justice Leveson returns to relative obscurity in the spirit of a free press by not taking questions, making any comment and not giving interviews. His inquiry, it seems, was a complete waste of time and money.
Responding to public outrage at the behaviour of certain elements within the British press, our unelected Prime Minister commissioned the noble Lord to investigate the culture, practices and ethics of the self regulatory printed media. Edmund Burke, an example of classic liberalism and founder of modern conservatism, christened the hacks in the press gallery and, more importantly, wealthy newspaper proprietors as the fourth estate as long ago as 1787 when restrictions on reporting the goings on in parliament were lifted. Good old Edmund would have been aghast to hear just how low the fourth estate has sunk. But never mind, life goes on and there are newspapers to sell.
After considering the evidence, testimony under oath from the good and the great, celebrities, innocent victims and their families and testimony under oath from the bad, great and strangely forgetful, one might think that Leveson`s conclusions would be fairly obvious. However, there are dark and powerful forces in play and the noble Lord had to tread very carefully, not least due to the various ongoing criminal investigations into serious wrongdoing. As Leveson was delivering his recommendations, a short distance away Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson were up in front of another bench facing charges of conspiring to pay public officials for information. They and three others were released on bail and ordered to appear before another judge next week. Lord Justice Leveson was probably too busy to notice and did not offer any comment regarding conflicting evidence and accounts that prove that some of the witnesses at his inquiry lied to him under oath.
This small inconvenience is part of a bigger picture that Leveson wished to paint to salvage something from the 12 month bun fight costing more than £5million namely, more robust self-regulation of the press enforced by statutory underpinning. The rather strange assertion that the Met is free from corruption and that Jeremy Hunt is as pure as the driven snow probably raised more laughs on the street of shame than the introduction of a custard pie to Rupert Murdoch`s wasp chewing face. Leveson needn`t have bothered with these compromises designed to ensure the success of his main proposal. David Cameron did not like what the inquiry he commissioned had concluded and so our unelected Prime Minister is going to kill it stone died.
An hour after Leveson stressed that his recommendation was definitely not government regulation of the press, Cameron was on his feet in the House claiming that the report would result in government regulation of the press and so the end of free speech. No, this is not what the report proposes. The Press Complaints Commission has been a complete failure because its members are serving newspaper editors and other vested interests and Leverson wishes to see it replaced by tougher self-regulation overseen by an independent body made up of members without pecuniary interests in the print industry and free from the influence of newspaper proprietors. This requires parliamentary legislation; a statute which Leverson insists should also include strict safeguards to ensure a free press beyond the influence of politicians. Imagine any other industry, the production of nuclear power for example, where operators are allowed to be unaccountable and unregulated by government and when things go wrong, are permitted to sit in judgement of themselves. Cameron, hours after dismissing the central premise of the Leveson report, tasked his spin doctors to draft a preliminary bill that will be so complex and unworkable that it will fail before the apparatchiks run spell check over the wretched thing.
It might be worth considering the nature and worth of the free press in Britain. There is in this country, a long and honourable tradition of investigative journalism exposing all manner of nasty stuff. Devoting a front page splash to the discovery that a minor celebrity is drunk and has exposed her under garments climbing out of a Maserati is not part of that tradition. Professional footballers playing away from home is hardly something new and giving away the plot of some dreadful soap opera might constitute public interest but it is something very different from news. Self-regulation is being overtaken by action under both civil and criminal law. Predictably, almost all national newspapers have come firmly out against Leverson and in defending Cameron`s defence of free speech will unleash another torrent of abuse against anyone who dares question their independence, impartiality, accuracy or their right to rubbish individuals who their proprietor disagrees with. Proprietors are, after all, a shrinking breed. There are so few of them and with mass circulations falling, we should support champions of free speech such as Murdoch, Richard Desmond, Conrad Black and the Berkeley brothers before they shuffle off this mortal coil.
It`s been a good week for metaphor. Leveson talked of guarding the guardians and Cameron gave us crossing the Rubicon. Others offered drinking in the last chance saloon, editors marking their own homework and government throwing down the gauntlet to the press. The press have reacted by arranging a meeting to be headed by a certain Paul Dacre which tells you all you need to know about press self-regulation. Perhaps the best use of language was displayed by Cameron himself when he promised a family member of a victim of phone hacking that he would support the findings of Leverson unless it was “bonkers”. The backlash against the unelected Prime Minister has begun. If his Euro sceptics don`t finish him, Leverson will.
As Julius Caesar said as his crossing of the Rubicon started an insurrection: “alea iacta est” – the die is cast.