You can always tell when different parts of the establishment know something is coming they don’t like. They bring out big guns briefing against it in advance. And that’s what we have seen in advance of the report by Lord Justice Leveson – politicians at one remove from government and deputy editors at one remove from the final say were lining up to say how anti-democratic and awful it would be if we had a new press watchdog established by statute. We would be throwing hundreds of years of freedom of the press into the sewer that is the Fleet.
The ink was barely dry on the page before the PM himself was lining up beside them mongering doom if what was being recommended was brought to pass. It shows how little regard even politicians have for their kind when they fear that their successors (who will no doubt be much worse) might succumb to the temptation to use any such statute to tighten regulation and shackle press freedom.
What was sadly lacking in this harangue of Leveson was any sense that a High Court Judge might actually know how the law might work, and that there is a balance of risk to be made here: what might happen if a new watchdog with sharp teeth started to use them?
Of course there is a risk that Parliament might abuse the law to restrain press freedom. But the chances of that happening in a mature democratically constituted country is not high. And if, because of shifting demographics and power systems, we become more amenable to reining in the printed media then politicians won’t need to use something more anodyne that is on the statute book already, they will have the nous to create their own law.
It seems to me that the PM is not balancing the lesser long-term risk of Parliament abusing legislation on independent press supervision with the greater shorter-term risk of the press opting out of a voluntary system as they have done in the past. Check their record. When watchdogs with sharp teeth start to bite newspaper proprietors do they voluntarily stay in the system? There is a much greater chance of them saying, ‘stuff this, I’m off.’ At the moment they say, ‘We get it,’ but it seems to me that it will only take a few cases of necessary redress before they will be crying foul and opt out.
It is even for this reason alone that Leveson convinces me with his limited legal framework – ironically that includes enshrining the freedom of the press in law.
David Cameron is condescending to ask the civil servants to draft a bill in order to show how complicated such legislation will be and how difficult to implement. I only hope that Lord Justice Leveson will have those who will speak up for him from the legal fraternity to show how possible such enabling legislation could be, and how beneficial it could become to the population of a nation which is fed up to the back teeth of how the press vilifies people so regularly without proper or speedy redress.