Private Eye wasn’t criticised in Lord Leveson’s report into press misbehaviour. We have spent decades pointing out exactly these sorts of excesses in our press column, “The Street of Shame”, and our campaign against the influence of Rupert Murdoch goes back to Paul Foot and the earliest days of the magazine.
So it’s somewhat ironic the new regulator would demand that Private Eye become a participant, and if we didn’t and were involved in a libel case not only would there be exemplary damages awarded against us for failing to join the regulator, but we would have to pay the costs even if won!
Private Eye is not signed up to the Press Complaints Commission. Leveson’s proposals would mean that if we didn’t join voluntarily his new independent regulator we would be regulated by the state appointed regulator Ofcom. The reward for not having fallen foul of the judge’s investigation would be that we would have to be told what to do by someone appointed by David Cameron. Given that the criticism of Cameron was the most feeble piece of Leveson’s report, I’m not quite sure why we should then answer to the Prime Minister’s appointee.
Quite a lot of Leveson is perfectly sensible. In the evidence I gave to the Inquiry I said that one of the problem with the PCC was that it was stuffed full of representatives from the press who Private Eye had been rude about. Any regulator should be properly independent and not full of either members of the press or politicians – and the judge has taken that on board.
He seems to be sympathetic to a public interest defence and he has also listened to the point that the regulator shouldn’t stop publication in advance, so the old principle of “publish and be damned” would still hold. But there are less convincing things in it too. The idea that if people think that the press is being too intrusive they can ask the regulator to stop it – what if they are being persistent about an inquiry that is entirely legitimate?
However the point I was trying to make at the inquiry, is why can’t we just enforce the laws? The ones we already have against phone hacking, harassment, libel, bribery etc etc. For instance Leveson is very critical of the treatment of Christopher Jefferies but I don’t understand why the Attorney General couldn’t have rung the editors of the papers concerned that morning to say “Stop! This is contempt of court.” Why not prosecute those editors?
If the reason is because the Attorney General’s boss is the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister is too close to the newspaper proprietors, then that in itself is a perfectly good argument not to have state regulation because the politicians can’t be trusted. In so many of the appalling cases that have turned the public mood against the press it seems to me there is a failing not only by the press but by the police and the legal establishment.
The report’s not “bonkers” but I don’t like the principle that it is under-pinned by the state and I don’t like the idea that all significant news providers are answerable to Ofcom. Maybe I will have to declare the Eye “insignificant”.
Ian Hislop was talking to The Independent’s media editor Ian Burrell