In a brisk presentation of his voluminous report yesterday, Lord Justice Leveson drew a bleak picture of British newspapers that only confirmed many of the clichés about their reprehensible behaviour, while acknowledging that the press mostly "serves the country very well". His conclusions, of course, were neither better nor worse than the evidence that had been provided, with such rawness, by those who had testified about lives ruined by quite unacceptable, and at times illegal, activities on the part of some newspapers.
But it hardly needed an eminent judge to conclude that the present system of press regulation, through the Press Complaints Commission, is not working. It was the public outcry unleashed by the revelations about Milly Dowler's hacked mobile phone, which followed the case of Chris Jefferies, wrongly pilloried as the chief suspect in the killing of Joanna Yeates, that created an imperative for government action and prompted the Prime Minister to set up an inquiry. The brief was to diagnose what was wrong and propose remedies.
His report does just that, with exemplary method and forthrightness. And we would support many of its recommendations, starting with the emphasis placed on the need for a regulator that would be truly independent – not just of the press itself, but of government and political parties. Indeed, this is exactly what we called for earlier this week. He is right, too, that any watchdog needs real power to sanction errant publications and provide redress to those who have been wronged. The present system, which requires recourse to the law, offers justice only for the moneyed few.
Where we part company with Lord Justice Leveson is on the need for legislation – any legislation – to support the changes of principle and practice that are so patently required. It is true that he was admirably clear in rejecting statutory regulation as such. He also offered some carrots to the press for signing up to a new regulatory system, including – maybe – lower costs for claims settled by arbitration rather than the courts, and the principle of freedom of the press explicitly enshrined in law. But his central proposal, that the establishment and working of a new and fully independent regulatory body should be underpinned by legislation, we believe to be not only unnecessary, but undesirable.
One of Lord Justice Leveson's arguments was that only a statutory element would guarantee public confidence in any new watchdog. That does not have to be so. It is by its operation, not its legislative underpinning, that it would be judged. And there was considerable irony yesterday in the fact that this position was defended most forcefully by none other than the Prime Minister – the very person who had set up the inquiry and was on record as committed to acting on its recommendations unless they were, in his word, "bonkers".
Bonkers, Lord Justice Leveson's proposals were not. There were details we would quibble with – including his unjustifiably mild criticism of the police. Journalists can be blamed for much, but without members of the police prepared to give privileged tip-offs and the like some of the most egregious actions of the press would not have been possible. Two parties are involved here, each guilty in its own way.
But, as David Cameron pointed out, the statutory aspects contain very real dangers to which most MPs – from all three main parties – who spoke in the Commons yesterday appeared blind. There was almost a sense that the two groups were on different planets, with those calling for legislation, however "lite", having past victims, such as the Dowlers, primarily in their sights, and the Prime Minister and his supporters looking to high principle and possible implications for the long term.
Mr Cameron, of course, could afford to take the high ground. The report effectively vindicated him over his friendship with the former News International executive Rebekah Brooks, as it did his then Culture Secretary over his handling of NewsCorp's bid for BSkyB. But on the matter of statutory regulation – the time it would take, the complexities it would throw up and the risk it could turn into statutory regulation by default – he was quite right. As he was in his contention that it was actually unnecessary: the bulk of Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations can be implemented without it.
Whether this will be possible without a battle royal in the Commons, though, looks doubtful. Legislation was favoured by a broad swathe of senior MPs and, with caveats, by Mr Cameron's Coalition partner, Nick Clegg. This places the onus on the press to devise a system of independent regulation that commands the confidence both of MPs and of the public – and to do so with the same sense of urgency, strength of purpose and understanding of the public mood that Lord Justice Leveson showed in conducting his hearings and delivering his report.