The three main political parties do something that has been flagged up for months – arguably for nearly two years – and the howls of outrage are deafening. To read the outpourings of anger at the cross-party agreement on press regulation, you could be forgiven for supposing it came from the ether.
But we, the press, can’t say we weren’t warned. For years, as scandals enveloped our industry, we collectively sat back and did nothing. We had every opportunity to strengthen our own watchdog, but we chose not to. Then, when the furore was at its loudest, in July 2011, following the revelation that Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked, the Prime Minister instigated a judicial inquiry to look into our conduct and how we’re governed.
From that moment, the game was up. You don’t appoint a judge to do nothing. Indeed, in his hearings, Lord Justice Leveson said as much. Finally, his report was published, and he advocated independent self-regulation cemented with a small statute.
Then, David Cameron said he rejected the need for legislation. Cue press applause for his courage and vision. Of course, it caused hesitation that the Tories do not enjoy a majority, that at some stage he was going to need the backing of the Lib Dems or Labour, which are pro-Leveson, pro-statute. But such was Cameron’s confidence, and such was the press’s willingness to side with him, that any doubts were assuaged. His aide, Oliver Letwin, came up with the mechanism of a Royal Charter and the negotiations on the detail began in earnest.
All along, though, not enough attention was being paid to Cameron’s weakness – he cannot carry the House. From the off, he required votes from elsewhere.
The papers, too, did not heed the signal from Cameron that while he would avoid statute he was keen to accede to the principles of Leveson. This meant that a formula in which newspapers could still determine who was their overseer was not acceptable. Similarly, an easily accessed arbitration service was also a key Leveson recommendation, as was the placing of apologies and the ability of third parties to make complaints.
At the same time, we, the industry, did not find or properly search for a unifying figure, one who was not so easily identifiable with the existing regulator, and could represent all facets of our trade, from national to local, broadsheet to popular, right to left. We did not engage early enough with Labour and the Lib Dems. We were too disparaging of Hacked Off. We did not read the runes, that while Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband were talking to us, they were still listening to the campaign group.
I never wished for any state involvement in the press. But it’s happened, and I’m forced to ask: who is really to blame here?