Self regulation of the press in the United Kingdom has failed. The Press Complaints Commission, far from being a fair minded and independent body which protects the individual from trespass by the media, has proven itself to be rather like a bunch of foxes deciding not to eat chicken for lunch after having decimated the henhouse. It is not necessary to once again raise the case of Milly Dowler, to speak of phone hacking or to discuss bribes to the police: the press is more than proven to be crooked, it is seen as being crooked. It is not going to be possible to restore any semblance of ethical behaviour in this industry without the force of law and the heavy hand of its sanction behind it.
This will not spell the end of press freedom, as some editorial writers might argue: rather, the kind of liberty to which they aspire is that of the Victorian candy maker who was able to put sawdust and animal droppings into his sweets, with the only protection from potential illness being the buyers’ nous. Similarly the newspapers would like to adulterate their content with sensationalism for a nefarious purpose, namely, to maintain profit margins insofar as it is possible in a declining market. As was stated in a recent episode of BBC’s “Newsnight”, what was once an £8 billion market is now worth £6 billion: it’s substantial, but it will only be the most high-value content that will allow a newspaper to maintain its present standing. To this end, any tactics, no matter how underhanded, that can be deployed will be utilised: one of the most shocking episodes revealed by Hugh Grant’s recent Channel 4 documentary on press regulation was that of a News of the World journalist who found a former celebrity, destitute and addicted to drugs, begging for change outside of a Tube station. This tale of woe apparently was neither compelling nor tragic enough in and of itself: the journalist offered her money for sex in order to claim she was also a prostitute. Not long after the story broke, she committed suicide. To the journalist’s credit, he quit the industry; others are likely to have fewer scruples.
Given this situation, it is highly likely that Lord Leveson’s report on the behaviour of the press will recommend some form of regulatory regime. By most accounts, Lord Leveson has a reputation for being both honest and thoughtful; furthermore, he appears to possess a moral compass. The enquiry over which he presided was also conducted with utmost probity and skill; Robert Jay, the lead counsel, proved to be a brilliant inquisitor. No doubt the measures Leveson will recommend will be carefully crafted and intended to achieve a balance between preserving freedom of speech as well as protecting the rights of the individual.
But will David Cameron fully accept the report’s conclusions and act upon it? Probably not.
It is all too easy to imagine the following scenario: the Prime Minister will address the Commons, perhaps on the day of publication, perhaps delaying the day of reckoning to several weeks after its release, perhaps as long as after the holidays. He will be effusive in his praise of Lord Leveson and thank him for his work. He will then say that any changes to the law would be difficult and that he would rather err “on the side of liberty” rather than create a system which could be open to abuse later. Next, he will say that he has personally spoken to the editors of the leading newspapers and received solemn undertakings from each of them that they will adhere to a new, tougher code of ethics. This code of ethics will be enforced by a voluntary contract which all the editors have promised to sign; the contract will be in line with proposals from Lord Hunt, the last chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. Cameron will present this as a historic compromise, one which will secure the blessings of a cliché which he will no doubt deploy as a rhetorical flourish. After a time, things will return to precisely as they were before.
It may seem harsh prior to the publication of the report to suggest that Cameron will act with such craven cowardice. However, Hugh Grant’s documentary provided an intriguing clue as to what the future hold: Grant, who seemed purposeful, intelligent and committed, met with Cameron during the course of the programme. Cameron provided a stark contrast to Grant’s vigour: he seemed pale, tired, nervous, and less than sure of what he was saying. If anything, the actor appeared to be more of a Prime Minister than the politician. This impression of weakness was backed up by what Grant said after the meeting: apparently, Cameron was less than totally committed to following Leveson’s recommendations.
Cameron may have calculated it’s easier to do what the press wants: after all, if he allows them to escape, they will be indebted to him. It’s not difficult to envisage a publication like the Spectator, which has indicated its revulsion at the thought of any press regulation, hailing a half measure as the mark of a statesman. Beyond this, Cameron knows that any chance of his re-election will be partially dependent upon the disposition of the popular press: no doubt the Machiavellian in him has reckoned how easily he can secure this by not embracing Leveson’s recommendations. He may reckon the sole opposition to his caving in will be found on social media, which his “too many tweets make a twat” remark suggests he holds in contempt. Just wait for another episode of “Strictly Come Dancing”, he may think, and the hive mind will be suitably distracted. Of course, this scenario also assumes that Cameron has no consistent ethical framework by which he operates apart form perceiving good in the form of personal gain.
This would, however, be consistent with Tory philosophy: one of the more disturbing episodes in Grant’s programme was a discussion between the actor and Lord Hunt in which Hunt further described his voluntary contract idea. It was a desperate measure. Hunt simply did not want to admit the case for legislation; he felt the voluntary constraints would be sufficient. He’s of the Thatcherite era and has apparently carried from it a distaste for anything which hampers the operation of a free market. He evidently desires no regulations, no formal rules, not even when these would convey the soul of ethics in an environment which had proven to be both feral and toxic. Cameron too comes from this milieu; no doubt he can construct a case within his mind that sees no contradiction between personal advantage and adhering to the values which have hitherto surrounded him. As I type this, he probably is consulting the report, and as he reads the sensible, measured advice, his eyes may glaze over, shutting out any further input. Sweet surrender to the media’s desires may beckon him as loudly as a victory.
Perhaps this is why the Liberal Democrats have asked the Speaker for time in which the Deputy Prime Minister may make a statement of his own, perhaps to rebut what Cameron may say. It would be useful if Labour, who were conspicuous in their absence from Grant’s documentary, also stood firm and backed Lord Leveson’s findings. Perhaps then, mendacity, weakness, cowardice and avarice wouldn’t matter: perhaps then, journalists who somehow lack the moral fibre not to prey on the vulnerable would realise they could get into serious trouble for doing so and refrain. Perhaps, just perhaps, something like justice might be achieved.