Historic events come in strange guises, and their long-term consequences are not always easy to predict. Last week's publication of Lord Justice Leveson's vast report on the British press feels like just such an event, prompting a ferocious debate and splitting the coalition government. But will the row over his recommendations matter in 20 years' time? My guess is that the immediate rejection of a key element of the report by editors and government ministers will come to seem as quaint as it is misguided.
At the heart of the furore is the minimal statutory underpinning suggested by the report. Without it, the proposals amount to little more than a beefed-up version of what we have now: a regulatory system that has no force in law. The consequence, as the report describes in forensic detail, isn't press freedom but press impunity. Phone hacking and bribing sources are illegal, but many of the unpleasant things journalists have done are not. Swarms of reporters habitually descend on people who find themselves caught up in tragedy, asking intrusive questions and ignoring polite requests to go away. Leveson is in no doubt that this amounts to harassment. He's also struck by the weakness of internal disciplinary proceedings, rarely invoked even when the police discover evidence of illegal activities by hundreds of named journalists, as they did during Operation Motorman.
Lord Justice Leveson has produced a report that balances the freedom of the press and the right of individuals to redress. He also, I suspect, couched his words in terms he thought all three party leaders and the victims of press intrusion would be able to accept. His proposals are cautious and not unduly onerous on news organisations, despite the hyperbole with which some of them have responded. If, as I expect, the report is eventually approved by Parliament, I suspect we will look back and wonder what the fuss was about.
Make no mistake: this is a long game. I'm not surprised by the initial response from Cameron and the hapless Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, but it's far from being the final word. I always believed a cross-party consensus on press reform was desirable but unlikely, and I'm sure this weekend's political manoeuvres offer only a glimpse of what's happening behind the scenes. The Tories' bizarre plan to produce a Bill showing Leveson's proposals to be unworkable is too absurd to be taken seriously, so the initiative has passed to Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg.
Miliband has already said he will call a vote in the House of Commons in January, which gives him time to assemble a parliamentary majority in favour of accepting the report's principal recommendations. Meanwhile Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem deputy leader and a victim of phone hacking, has raised the possibility of introducing a short non-government Bill to enact Leveson if his party and Labour cannot reach an agreement with Cameron.
The Government will no doubt hope it can see off any such Bill through its control of the parliamentary timetable. But draft legislation is likely to have the support of Lib Dem cabinet members, which would make for a very unusual backbench Bill.
The reason this matters is that the public and victims of press intrusion want the same thing: a better press, with stronger public interest defences. On page after page, Leveson demonstrates that red-top editors pursued private access to politicians not because they wanted to know what they were up to, but because they wanted influence.
Events in Parliament last week show they still have it, underlining Leveson's point that the relationship has been too close for more than three decades. On Thursday, the PM failed his own "victim test", trading the prospect of better journalism for a day's fawning headlines. Ten days ago, victims of press intrusion met Clegg and Miliband to discuss the way forward. Now we're asking them to be bold and ensure we get a press that defends the weak instead of abusing its own power.Reuse content