THE two scandals which gave rise to the Leveson Inquiry were phone hacking and bribing the police. Both are already crimes. The scandal was failure to enforce the law. Yet Leveson baldly dismisses these issues – asserting without evidence that “more rigorous application of the criminal law does not and will not provide the solution”.
Of course it would. Now, belatedly, some 90 people have been arrested – a powerful deterrent against any repetition. But to acknowledge that would have truncated his report. So instead he proposes extending statutory involvement to buttress a system of regulation intended largely to tackle quite different problems, with little relevance to hacking or bribery.
Leveson was goaded into making complex proposals by the two most dangerous phrases in the political lexicon: “something must be done” and “the status quo is not an option”. They are the mantra of those in the commentariat with no idea what should be done but want to sound positive.
I have little sympathy for those newspapers (City A.M. being almost the sole exception) who invariably demand unspecified government interference to solve any problem and are now hoist by their own petard.
In fact the status quo, however unsatisfactory, may be less bad than all the alternatives. Churchill said “democracy is the worst method of government – except for all the alternatives”. A free and unregulated press, with all its failings, is the worst kind of media except for all the alternatives – which include state regulation.
By all means let newspapers set up a new collective system of self regulation. But let us not expect too much of it. The most effective form of self regulation is a highly competitive press, not one that colludes together. It was not the Press Council or the police who exposed phone hacking at the News of the World. It was the Guardian. Likewise it was ITV’s Panorama – not Ofcom – which exposed the BBC over Jimmy Savile. And it was independent bloggers who recently discovered the BBC’s lies and cover-up about the non-existent “28 top scientists” who supposedly set their climate policy.
Leveson wants to set up a strong “voluntary” regulator, unelected but empowered to write a code of practice, whose contents will be binding on those newspapers which subscribe to the regulator, and will have to satisfy Ofcom as to its contents and application. Any newspaper refusing to join in would apparently be regulated directly by Ofcom and would risk the courts presuming it “to have shown wilful disregard of standards” and be liable to “exemplary damages”.
How Ofcom would regulate the online media – of whose existence the learned judge appears largely unaware – he does not say. Newspapers must either volunteer to be regulated by an “independent body” which is in turn regulated by Ofcom, or submit directly to Ofcom. All credit to David Cameron for resisting this creeping state control of our press.
A useful test of how this would work is to ask how it would have handled the Back to Basics furore. The media pack decided that John Major’s use of the phrase “Back to Basics” implied advocating “family values”, and therefore claimed the duty to investigate the private life of every cabinet minister. They called on my neighbours asking for any “filth about Lilley”, offered money to people in the pub opposite my home if anyone saw any “goings on” through my windows. Worst of all, the Mirror made their front page story about me visiting my nephew who was dying of Aids, intending to smear me in some way, and causing immense distress to my sister. So I know how horrible a free press can be.
But had the new “strong independent regulator” approved by Ofcom existed, would it and should it have called off the press hounds? It would have been an intensely political decision one way or the other. Should the regulator have such power? No it shouldn’t – even though it would have made my family’s life more pleasant.
As for Clegg’s petulant coda to the Prime Minister’s statement, it showed the division within the LibDem psyche. Ten days ago Vince Cable announced that no department could introduce a new regulation unless it repealed two others. Since then LibDem ministers have announced proposals to regulate four new industries. So they should surely not go ahead until they tell us the eight industries they propose to deregulate.
Peter Lilley is Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden.