Two events occurred simultaneously yesterday that have great bearing on the future of newspapers. One was the opening of Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into the "culture, practices and ethics of the press" and the efficacy of press self-regulation. The other was the Society of Editors' annual conference at a hotel at Runnymede, site of the signing of Magna Carta, and billed by the organisers as also occurring at a historic juncture for their industry.
While Leveson issued stern warnings to editors, telling them not to victimise witnesses who speak out against press intrusion, at their gathering the editors were contemplating beefing up the regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, in a belated attempt to head off the worst that his lordship may recommend when his inquiry finally concludes.
All the editors were agreed on the need to avoid statutory interference, that we cannot have a system of state control, that press freedom is rightly sacrosanct. For that is the fear with Leveson – that having been handed a remit so broad by David Cameron he will respond in kind, and what had its origins in the furore surrounding phone hacking by a small group of rogue journalists has spiralled into something much bigger and all-encompassing. And unnecessary.
It seems to be forgotten that we already have tight laws in place to deal with press malpractice. Hacking has been a criminal offence since 2000; trespass, burglary and theft a lot longer. We have a strict law of libel – indeed too onerous, say many of those in the UK media and certainly one of the most severe when compared with other jurisdictions. We have punitive rules about contempt of judicial proceedings. We have the PCC and its code, to which most newspaper journalists are signatories. Now, we are to get the findings of Leveson.
That some reporters and their executive bosses apparently chose to ignore the existing ethical and legal framework is conveniently overlooked. In any walk of life there will be bad apples. No amount of judicial scrutiny is going to change that.
The Leveson omens are not promising. The panel is comprised of people without frontline journalistic experience; the first two days of pre-inquiry hearings, when senior members of the press gave their thoughts, merely highlighted the gulf between, on the one hand, Leveson and his team, and, on the other, the media.
Last week, Leveson went on fact-finding visits to newsrooms. If he was disappointed not to come across bunches of renegade hacks whispering phone numbers to private detectives, their desks awash with wads of cash, he did not say. There again, all is not so clear-cut: it could be that if he had, those journalists were investigating a scandal of enormous public significance, one that when it is exposed may reform our society for the good. This, too, is something Leveson must determine: the distinction between the public interest and what interests the public. The two are very different.
What is undeniable is that the standing of the press in the eyes of the public has been dealt a severe blow by hacking. But it should not be forgotten that those who listened to Milly Dowler's voicemail are being pursued by the police – belatedly, it is true (and the cosiness of relations between the police and elements of the press is another subject for Leveson's groaning in-tray), but they are at least being tackled.
Quite where Leveson leads remains to be seen. Such is the opprobrium (or is it apathy?) that politicians and public are not perturbed. But imagine: if, after Bloody Sunday, Lord Saville had been asked to probe not just the 1972 Londonderry shootings but the conduct of the entire British Army. The uproar would have been deafening. Good luck to Leveson, he is going to require it – all the more so if Britain is not to emerge the poorer.