There they were, on the bank of the Rubicon, weighed down by the longest and most detailed report ever compiled on the state of British newspapers, wondering whether to cross or not to cross. David Cameron looked nervously at the angry legions on the other side commanded by the press barons. He thought that on the whole he would rather stay put.
But in that great unexplored territory called public opinion behind him, the disorganised forces of Hacked Off appeared to outnumber greatly the organised army of hacks, which made Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband want to risk a crossing. Most of Miliband’s troops are sufficiently sore from injuries inflicted by right-wing newspapers as to be more than willing to bring out the heavy weapon of Commons legislation. Clegg’s troops feel the same way, and he seized his chance to show he is a commander, albeit of a smallish army, not a staff officer.
Lord Justice Leveson has set out some sensible principles by which journalists ought to abide; most will try to, a few will not. David Cameron is wary of making it the Government’s task to deal with the few. Understandably, he does not want the national press lined up against him on an issue on which his own party is divided. Clegg and Miliband believe they speak for public opinion. So does Leveson, who had the air yesterday of a cross headmaster imposing a whole school punishment.
Yesterday’s Commons statement had its first moment of high comedy when John Bercow threw the discussion open to backbench MPs and after exhorting them to ask “short questions without preamble” turned first to the venerable Tory Sir Peter Tapsell. Sir Peter observes brevity like Boris Johnson does chastity, and delivered an exposition on how Leveson had failed to address the problem of “bad men and sometimes foreigners” who own national newspapers. It ran to 90 words. But to be fair, that is barely 0.007 per cent of the length of the Leveson Report.