So what did Leveson achieve? A wounded tabloid industry will be even more likely to push the boundaries of responsibility to keep its head above water. The Leveson Report was another warning that we have a free press but not a responsible press.
After the publishing of a damning 2000 page report and the testimonials of over 600 witnesses, the press begin their eighth attempt in sixty years at self-regulation as part of a self-serving collective the public cannot trust. It is, therefore, worth asking what contribution the Leveson Report will make to the future of the press.
What is currently ongoing could become one of the greatest collective deceptions from the tabloid press in their entire chequered history. The Leveson Inquiry, greater in its scope, mandate and impact, should produce a radical outcome in comparison to the Calcutt report and the three Royal Commissions.
The creation of a new body is likely to be overseen by individuals the public just cannot trust. Even if those in the press can get everybody as part of the same regulatory body, it is unclear how or why they should influence future behaviour. Who passes judgement on these judges, scares these scaremongers, or limits the limitless? With some cross-party and cross-industry discussion it is possible to achieve the necessary enforcement and freedom balance. This is exactly what Lord Leveson proposed – a new regulatory body that is truly independent of industry leaders and of government and politicians. That is why he proposed a statute to enshrine the freedom of the press and protect their independence from government, something rarely discussed in the wider argument. Yet, the principles are being defaced by a political campaign on certain front pages which makes the prospect of objective and balanced news reporting farcical.
Nobody claims Denmark and Ireland (both of whom have statute backed regulation) are at the centre of a despotic plot to overturn cherished press freedom. Nick Clegg made it clear that “The Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star, The Sun, The Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror are all members of the Irish Press Council -they all publish Irish editions. I have not yet heard those papers complain of a deeply illiberal press environment across the Irish Sea.”
Nor is it the case that the press’ action should have been covered by law. The treatment of Christopher Jefferies, subjected to a vicious caricature relating to the murder of his tenant Joanna Yeates, did not break any laws. Sienna Miller (although apparently an acceptable target because she seeks fame?) was not protected by law when she was chased down alleys at midnight by groups of men because they were carrying cameras. Kate McCann was not protected by law when she was “mentally raped”, having her most private thoughts stolen and published. Minorities have no voice in law when they are the victim of “discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting”.
It is also unsurprising that David Cameron has adopted the tactic of delay and the language of the long grass. With one swift decision he puts himself in a prime position for favourable reporting come the next election. The support may not be as fawning (he upset many proprietors and journalists by agreeing to the Inquiry in the first place) and because of their tarnished reputation papers may not matter as much in 2015 as in previous elections. Yet it will certainly give a boost to the Conservative campaign and disrupt Labour and the Lib Dems as they attempt to fire fight trivial and often malicious stories. The sensible approach for Ed Miliband would have been to analyse the findings of the 2000 page document and make his own amendments. However, Miliband had to draw all the political capital he could from the issue and that meant drawing definite dividing lines immediately whilst it was still in the public mind. It was even more misguided for Cameron to admit the implementation of any recommendations as long as they are not “bonkers,” knowing that Leveson was looking at the Irish model of regulation and that statutory underpinning was a possibility.
And to those that say all this doesn’t matter anyway. Yes Leveson was one bloated historical exercise when it was receiving witnesses, raking over past misdeeds in order to make recommendations for the future. And yes, in years to come it will be probably become even more historic as the struggling industry limps at the feet of its greatest rival, the monolithic internet, bound to be almost insignificant and poorly read in dead tree format in a few decades time.
That does not mean it did not matter or nothing needs to be done. It has been said by some commentators that the process is finished and that every witness was exploited and wasted their time. However people’s opinion of the press has changed forever, their despicable actions vividly displayed in full public flogging. If anyone ever trusted the press before, less will do so now. And if Labour wins the next election the principles could well be back on the table.
So what did Leveson achieve? A wounded tabloid industry will be even more likely to push the boundaries of responsibility to keep its head above water. Leveson was another warning that we have a free press but not a responsible press. Without the latter we can not have free people, free from the possibility of having their personal lives turned inside out on a whim. And we also need to use it to learn about ourselves as individuals. What knowledge we consume, where it comes from, its prerogatives and how morally abhorrent some of the people are that feed us.
Photo credit: Gwydion M. Williams