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Leveson’s legal backstop is aimed at a rogue press – not a free press

The national press which emerged from Leveson was part St George, part jackal

I was the lunch guest of a roomful of journalists the other day, most of them retired now, a few of them old acquaintances from Fleet Street days.

I believe I disappointed some of them. Thanks to a few lines from my 35 year-old play Night and Day, flatteringly recalled among the company and recently dusted off in the Leveson hubbub, they had me down as an all-or-nothing man on press freedom. “No matter how imperfect things are”, says my young reporter, “if you’ve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.” As for what he calls “junk journalism”, that’s “the price you pay for the part that matters”.

Simple enough. We all know what we mean by the part that matters. Back in 1978 I was probably thinking of the Sunday Times’s campaign for thalidomide victims. Now I’m thinking of the Daily Mail’s campaign following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, capped triumphantly only three days ago when one of the murderers abandoned his appeal; but there are many stories I could cite right across the spectrum of newspaper titles.

However, when it comes to “junk journalism”, I’m shaken. My reporter in the play is thinking of tabloid nonsense and has fun making up headlines (“Beauty Queen in Tug-of Love Baby Storm”). He isn’t thinking of what happened to the McCanns, to Charlotte Church, or to hundreds of victims of phone-hacking, chicanery and outright lies by monstering journalists.

Was it ever thus? It was not, not in the journalism I thought I was writing about in 1978.

The national press which emerged from the Leveson Inquiry presented a split personality, part St George, part jackal.  Under the flag of free expression, David Cameron and the editors tried to close ranks as though it were beyond wit or common sense to disentangle the one from the other. It was all or nothing still. Three of the editors (of The Guardian, the Financial Times and this newspaper) detached themselves from that caucus last week, and on Thursday the Prime Minister came to the conclusion – so it looks to me – that if he couldn’t deliver what the news industry’s hard-liners wanted, he’d better get out from under and let “the sovereignty of parliament” take the rap.

So today it’s up to the MPs.

But what exactly is it that’s up to the MPs? From the way the words have been flying about, one might think that three centuries of hard-won press freedom are being rolled back by Leveson to a time when the law could send Leigh Hunt to gaol.

On  Saturday the Daily Telegraph’s story setting up today’s debate in Parliament carried the headline “Miliband and Clegg plot an end for press freedom”. If that were so, or even if it looked like the loose end of that process, I’d be shoulder to shoulder with the editor of the Daily Sport, never mind the Telegraph which blew open the story about MPs’ expenses.

One might suppose that the newspaper editors breathed out with relief when Leveson, from the ruins of self-regulation, came up with a form of regulatory body independent of statute. They must have known that their readers were sickened by what they had learned about the rogue end of newspaper culture. But time passes, and now the relief has turned to a rallying-round to make a bogey of what Leveson deemed essential to his basic recommendation, namely a law-backed monitor of the regulatory body. This is the rock on which the Leveson report may founder, and a majority of national newspapers are determined that it should.  The Telegraph’s story on Saturday began like this: “Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband last night disclosed their joint plan for MPs effectively to oversee a new newspaper regulator, ending centuries of press freedom”. In future, the story said, MPs would be able to use “legislation” in order to  “regulate the media”.

Let me re-cap what is being said about what. Partly because the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was too much under the thumb of editors and journalists, there was a spectacular failure to ensure fairness.  Leveson proposed a different, more disinterested version of the PCC. He also proposed that there should be some form of oversight (I’m calling that a monitor) to keep the new body to its remit, and finally that the monitor (I paraphrase) needs legal backing.

It’s those last five words which are being spun as “an end for press freedom.” Personally I don’t see it, and I don’t believe it. There is only one question the MPs should be asking themselves:  would a statute-backed monitor of the non-statutory independent regulating body be a constraint on St George?  As for whether it would be a constraint on jackal journalism, which is not actually journalism but a delinquency which happened to be practised by journalists, in common with most of the population I can only hope that it would. 

What is being sought is ultimate protection for a meaningful comeback for any citizen who thinks he has cause for complaint.  A free press needs to be a respected press.  It is less respected now. The resistance to a statutory monitor suggests that the dream of self-regulation persists in some quarters.   Well, they had that, and – through six inquiries over several decades – they blew it.