No Press Regulation, Please, We’re British

Leveson

My thoughts on Leveson.

A is for “advisers advise”

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has taken a large dose of criticism for refusing to implement Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals. There is, though, no reason why our democratically elected government should have to adopt all or indeed any of this report. Or any other report.  Leveson’s role was to investigate and produce recommendations for press reform, which he dutifully did, and the role of our politicians was and remains to consider those recommendations very carefully indeed. There is no constitutional obligation whatsoever on the prime minister of the United Kingdom to rubber-stamp Leveson’s report.

At most Cameron might be accused of reneging on his promise to implement Leveson’s recommendations as long as they weren’t, as he put it, “bonkers”. Or perhaps Cameron, in all conscience, actually considers Leveson’s proposals bonkers.  Whatever the case, the bottom line is that advisers advise and ministers decide. What is otherwise the point of ministers?

C is for Cameron

Cameron has been accused by elements within his own party for some time now of lacking leadership. Well I say that on two key issues – equal marriage and Leveson – he has displayed admirable leadership.  He angered many homophobic and bigoted Tories (or “traditional grass-root Tory voters”, to give them their polite name) by persisting with his vision of legal equality for all citizens, and on Leveson he took a thwacking from his opponents for rejecting the proposals at the expense, supposedly, of protecting Rupert Murdoch and the old man’s crumbling media empire.

Maybe Cameron is doing his mate a favour. Who knows.  But maybe he also disagrees in principle with Leveson’s proposals.  Is it not at all possible that a British prime minister might consider regulation of the British press a bad thing?  I say that would be a good thing. And in any case, didn’t Leveson establish there wasn’t any untoward closeness between Downing Street and News Corp?

Surely if Leveson’s loudest cheerleaders are to be believed and his report is sacrosanct, it follows that we must also dismiss the notion of Murdoch pulling the prime ministerial strings? I’ve written before of my dislike for the perceived sanctity of reports and inquiries. If the pro-Leveson lobby can conclude that some sections of his report have merit but other sections don’t, then so can others.

F is for free speech

Despite the near-constant battering that free speech takes there have been pockets of good news in recent months. In December the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, announced the CPS would be focusing its efforts on speech that had a criminal element – such as incitement of violence and breach of court orders – rather than speech which was merely offensive. You might have thought that didn’t need clarifying but unfortunately it did.

It’s unclear whether Starmer’s new vision for the CPS was inspired by a principled defence of free speech or if it was just a dawning realisation of the logistical and financial impossibility of prosecuting thousands upon thousands of Twitter and Facebook users for causing offence. Whatever that means. Maybe it was the right decision for the wrong reasons, but it was still the right decision.  Then in January the Reform Section 5 campaign, a joint initiative between the National Secular Society and the Christian Institute, convinced the government to remove the word “insulting” from the Public Order Act 1986.

The point here is that we shouldn’t accept any legislative restriction on free speech, however small and apparently innocuous, unless there are incredibly strong reasons for doing so.  A system of statutorily-underpinned regulation which is designed to inhabit the gap between criminality and mere unpleasantness is not an incredibly strong reason.

I also shudder at even opening the door to the idea that legislation is an appropriate tool to deal with free speech or a free press for anything other than strictly criminal matters. I would happily bet a pound to a penny that this reasoning, in time, would be developed by religious organisations to use the law to insulate their ideas from scrutiny.

O is for openness

One can make reasonable accusations of a lack of transparency against both sides of this debate.  In the days following publication of Leveson’s report the Prime Minister had secretive meetings with a number of newspaper editors, leaving victims’ groups feeling understandably excluded from the debate. But at the beginning of this week, as discussions on press reform were reaching a crescendo, Hacked Off managed to secure a late night pyjama party with the three main political parties, invitations for which didn’t reach the letterboxes of newspaper editors.

So a bit of a score draw there.

R is for regulation

As Kenan Malik argues expertly here, Leveson’s claim that his proposal “is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press” is sophistry. The proposed regulation might be at the more cuddly end of the statutory regulation spectrum but it is a form of statutory regulation nonetheless.  For that reason if no other the proposed system deserves to be rejected.  Statutory regulation, once in place, would inevitably only get more rigorous rather than less, and it’s a terrible message for the UK to broadcast around the world.

S is for self-regulation

A key plank of Leveson’s findings, and something that everyone seems to agree on, was that the previous system of self-regulation had failed dismally: the Press Complaints Commission was widely considered a “toothless” organisation which allowed the press to “mark its own homework”.  That may well be true.  The solution to that is not state regulation but more effective self-regulation – without statute.

If any revised system of self-regulation still has flaws, which is probably inevitable, then perhaps we have to accept that as the price of a free press. My guess is that the press will realise just how closely they have sailed to state regulation and that newspaper editors will devise an effective and credible self-regulatory system, which won’t be perfect – because nothing ever is – but which will be at least slightly superior to its predecessor.

V is for victims

It’s impossible not to feel sympathy towards the victims of phone-hacking and press intrusion but it’s also wrong to frame arguments for press reform exclusively or even disproportionately through their eyes. We don’t even frame penalties for rape or murder solely through the perspective of victims or their loved ones, and yet here we are on the verge of regulating a free press based largely on the experiences of victims of bad press behaviour – however terrible some of those experiences and behaviours may have been.

Much of the really objectionable behaviour of the press was criminal and so it is to the criminal law we should look for dealing with that.  Which is what we are doing, as the many ongoing criminal cases demonstrate. As for that element of press behaviour which isn’t criminal but merely unpleasant, and even horribly unpleasant, rather than regulating the press we might consider revisiting our harassment and privacy laws. These are general laws that regulate everyone’s behaviour, not just that of the press.

And as for any press behaviour which still remains unpleasant but beyond the tentacles of the criminal law, that is a price of a free press. Would I be saying that if I had been a victim of that unpleasant behaviour myself?  Maybe not. But there you go, at least I can admit that.

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