A day before Lord Justice Leveson passes sentence, Dr Johnson’s witticism about the Ritalin-esque qualities of imminent execution seems hopelessly inaccurate. Far from being concentrated wonderfully by the prospect of the noose, my mind finds itself semi-paralysed by a nebulous sense of dread. There, it is hardly alone.
The whole industry lives in sickly terror today that his lordship will don the black cap tomorrow, by way of recommending a form of statutory control over the press, and the lure of pre-emptive hysteria is hard to resist.
If the temptation to personalise the issue is less strong, this is partly because we know too little about our judges for that. In the United States, no one is appointed to a senior judicial position without having their private life, politics and worldview minutely examined by the media and Congress. Here, under a system constructed on the love of secrecy, it can be impossible to discover as much on the internet as a judge’s first name.
This is not so with Lord Justice Leveson, and I suspect that a chunk of that ominous sensation stems from the meaningless coincidence that his parents, like those of Lord Hutton, chose to call him Brian. The seeds sown by Hutton’s report into events leading to Dr David Kelly’s suicide continue to grow into triffids almost nine years later. Newsnight’s loss of nerve over Savile is directly traceable to the enduring post-traumatic stress and crisis of confidence implanted that snowy, sludgy January afternoon in 2004 when Hutton blinded us with the whitest of washes.
The moral of that tale is clear. In a country stubbornly resistant to a written constitution, and denied any First Amendment guarantee of free speech, what passes for media liberty is a desperately fragile commodity.
This is by no means to suggest that Leveson is unaware that any spark he strikes tomorrow could develop into a raging forest fire, or that he is as naive about the workings of the media as his fellow Brian – though God knows he had every right to be shocked by what he heard, and appalled by the disdain of such witnesses as Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, and the blisteringly egregious Kelvin MacKenzie.
Yet be he the very Solomon of Scouse jurists, there is something deeply unnerving about one man, lumbered with a preposterously wide remit, being entrusted with the power to punish an entire industry for the misdemeanours, however grotesque, of its lowest common denominators.
His report will by now have reached No 10 where David Cameron – thrilled at having to perform another political high-wire act days after the abortive EU Budget negotiations – will play the part of appellate judge if, as expected, Leveson advises a form of statutory control. If so, the hysteria from newspapers will be deafening. While some of it will be special pleading and some commercially motivated, at its core the screeching outrage will be more principled than Steve Coogan and Max Mosley may be willing to accept.
If one objection to granting Parliament legal power over the press – even power held in reserve as a sort of Damoclean sword overhanging possible future misconduct – is a vague but sharp unease about what may follow once such a delicate tapestry as the balance between media and government begins to be unpicked, another belongs in his lordship’s area of jurisprudence. It is simply a blatant affront to natural justice to give those with a personal grievance any authority, actual or potential, over those who caused it.
If you wish to enable an MP or member of the House of Lords who was ridiculed, demonised and, in some instances, imprisoned over expenses, lobbying, or whatever, to vote on legislation governing those who revealed the offence, why not empanel former convicts on a jury trying the allegedly bent copper who put them away in the first place?
Whatever beefed-up alternative to the Press Complaints Commission the industry agrees to advocate – if it ever finds the self-discipline to form a united rearguard – must axiomatically be better than that. Self-regulation has hardly been an unmitigated triumph, although it has been more effective than sometimes portrayed (you’d scarcely believe the angst engendered in even the toughest of bruisers by the threat of a damning PCC judgment).
Tabloid hypocrisies have been many and rancid – stand by for a doozy when The Sun and Mail respond to Leveson by suddenly embracing human rights legislation in defence of free speech – and for too long the broadsheets ignored them with the same craven indulgence with which otherwise decent football fans once turned a deaf ’un to the disgusting chants of their terrace neighbours. But that age died, thank Christ, with the passing of Murdoch imperium.
The headline on a Times article yesterday by its editor, James Harding, read: “Don’t force the press into politicians’ arms”. It was a cogent, thoughtful piece of writing, and blessedly humble in a way Mr Dacre would never emulate, but that headline has an ironic ring. Under a previous editor, The Times didn’t need to be driven anywhere. It gleefully sprinted into Mr Tony Blair’s arms, in tandem with The Sun, in 1997, later humiliating itself by first slavishly parroting the Government’s lies preparatory to the invasion of Iraq, and then by exonerating Mr Blair on the strength of Lord Hutton’s inane witterings. The collusion in pursuit of its owner’s commercial interests was despicable.
Those days are over, as I said, and will no more return than phone hacking or the plundering of medical records. By its very existence, thanks to the evidence it heard and the public repugnance the testimony occasioned, the Leveson Inquiry has already bolted the stable door with the horse recaptured and partially tamed. What wildness survives, however distasteful and sometimes excessive, is a minute price to pay to maintain the comparative cleanliness of an innately clandestine political system which knows no better restraint than the fear of the occasional well-aimed kick in the cobblers from a newspaper.
Being sewer rather than sewerage, we will often stink... and that is absolutely the worst reason in the world to cut off the nose, with statutory oversight, to spite the face.