Oliver Wright: The truth is that the press is fickle - and that's healthy

  • @oliver_wright

So yet more inappropriate texts come to light at the Leveson Inquiry.

Rebekah Brooks wrote to Cameron the day before his conference speech in 2009 telling him that “we’re all in this together” adding she was “so rooting” for him tomorrow adding let’s meet for a “country supper” soon.

The Prime Minister looked deeply uncomfortable as the text was read out. It will cause him even more embarrassment when it appears in newspaper and television headlines tonight.

Too close doesn’t even begin to describe it.

But beyond this much of Mr Cameron’s substantive evidence this morning was a replay of an age old and intractable media studies debate which goes beyond the specifics of Cameron’s inappropriate friendship with Brooks.

How close should politicians get to the people that edit or own newspapers? Where does the line lie between appropriate and inappropriate relations? How can you police that?

There were other questions as well: How do you determine whether an editor is lobbying a politician on behalf of their readers or on behalf of their proprietor? Should newspapers be required to separate facts and comment?

How can you police that?

The problem for the inquiry is these are questions without straight forward answers – and any attempt to define and regulate the relationship because of crass and inappropriate texts could prove counter-productive.

The truth is that the press is like the public: fickle.

Tony Blair was courted and praised by the press for years, as was Margaret Thatcher before him. Even John Major and Gordon Brown each had their own (much shorter) press honeymoon.

Eventually in every case the press (and the public) turned against them and that will also be true of David Cameron.

That’s pretty healthy – and belies the suggestion of long term cosy deal between the press, proprietors and particular politicians.

There is a real danger that the Leveson Inquiry will try and introduce new rules and guidelines that could damage healthy political debate.

Yes the current situation is imperfect but - like the Dangerous Dogs Act – individual cases can make bad law.

It is undoubtedly true that there needs to be a tougher system of sanctions for the press and a beefed up complaints body.

It is also true that those responsible for phone hacking and bribery should be investigated and prosecuted – and there are laws in place to do that.

But to go beyond that is not necessarily in the public interest – in the truest sense of the phrase.

Lord Leveson is worried that his report may end up gathering dust on the top shelf of a journalism professor’s study.

But unless he is very careful that may be the best place for it.