The Leveson inquiry is already in danger of losing its focus. David Cameron announced to Parliament yesterday that the remit of Lord Justice Leveson's investigation of the press will be extended to include the BBC and social media. It is difficult to see what this expansion will accomplish, except to bog down the inquiry and to make its recommendations less focused than they would otherwise have been. It is also likely to delay the final report. As the Liberal Democrat media spokesman, Don Foster, has pointed out, it is hard to see how this now wide-ranging probe can be completed within its target date of one year.
There is also a flash of partisan axe-grinding in all this. Many Conservative MPs, who have long regarded the BBC as the mouthpiece of a vast left-wing conspiracy, were cheered by the Prime Minister's assertion yesterday that "we need to ensure that no one voice, not News Corporation, not the BBC, becomes too powerful".
This is an entirely inappropriate elision. Unlike News Corp, the BBC does not stand accused of presiding over industrial-scale illegality and the corruption of the police. Moreover, the BBC already has its own robust system of supervision in the form of an independent trust, established in the wake of the Hutton report. As for the question of whether social media such as Facebook and Twitter should, or even can, be regulated, that is surely such a large and complex topic – with immense practical and philosophical difficulties – that it would be better dealt with in an entirely different forum.
Leveson really ought to be focusing on the regulatory future of the printed press. And even here there are some worrying signs that it is heading down the wrong track. Leveson's six-person advisory panel, chosen by Downing Street, looks unbalanced. It includes two journalists, but neither has worked at the tabloid end of the market. This is a regrettable omission given that many of the issues Leveson's inquiry will explore will be related to the culture and practices of tabloid newsrooms.
As the Mirror journalist Ros Wynn-Jones writes in this newspaper today, tabloid journalism has a distinguished tradition of campaigning on behalf of working-class people, whether shining a light on the activities of loan sharks, or enlightening readers on the malfeasance of the banking industry. As well as the regular diet of lurid crime reporting and celebrity tittle-tattle, tabloid journalism, at its best, helps to bring foreign conflicts and famines to the attention of large audiences. Not all tabloid journalists are phone hackers or celebrity sheet sniffers. And that needs to be recognised in Leveson's report. Indeed, having a respected former tabloid journalist on the inquiry would have added to the credibility of its recommendations for reform.
The other danger, as we have noted before, is that the report will recommend a cumbersome new system of press regulation which could have the effect of cutting the hamstrings of investigative journalism.
None of this dooms Leveson to failure, or irrelevance, from the start. But it is vital that the judge and his panel stick to their central purpose and avoid the temptation to either range too widely, or to overreach.