Jackie Harrison

Is Cameron 'On or off the hook' with Leveson?

Jackie Harrison, Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) at University of Sheffield, discusses David Cameron's position on the Leveson inquiry.

Those in favour of stronger regulatory constraints are directing criticism at newspaper editors for jumping at the chance to accept Cameron’s ‘get out of regulation free card’.  This criticism fuels the idea that the UK press is no longer to be trusted to govern itself and those practices that sacrifice personal morality and professional ethics to the highest bidder will inevitably re-emerge. 

Many aspects of Leveson’s report are being cast by those ‘for’ statutory underpinnings as providing a solution to ‘a press’ conceived of as homogenous and behaving like a runaway train.  Public opinion polls though seem to offer contradictory findings, a YouGov poll on 7th – 8th July 2011 found that 78% agreed that the ‘tabloid press is out of control’ and in a further YouGov survey on 11th – 12th June 2012, 73% agreed that the press is out of control and needs tighter regulation.  But findings of another poll commissioned by the Sun and reported by the Daily Mail on 29 November 2012, cast some doubt on the public’s appetite for legislation, with only 24% of respondents in favour of a regulatory body set up through law by Parliament.

In responding to the strong arguments made by both the ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps, Cameron is both in a bind and off the hook. He is in a bind, because Leveson’s proposals show clearly enough that ‘no backstop regulator should be given any powers over published content, rather its control would be over press behaviour’ in particular those organisations that do not sign up to membership of the new self-regulatory independent body.  Notwithstanding Leveson’s ill-conceived involvement of OFCOM, which has no experience of press regulation, and about which even he seems to be conflicted (he seems reluctant about the involvement of OFCOM on p18 and supportive of it as an answer on p1788-9) he does try to counter the inevitable arguments marshaled by the ‘against’ camp.

He emphasises that, ‘It has been argued that any legislation touching on press regulation would be the beginning of the slippery slope; that any Government would find it easier to amend an existing Act than to bring forward new legislation to shackle the press …  If the history of the last 50 years on press regulation tells us anything, it tells us that Parliament wants nothing less than to pass legislation to regulate the press. …. Any statute only gives Government, or anyone else, the powers that are stated on the face of the legislation’ (p1780) and so he rejects the idea of the slippery slope fallacy of inevitably increasing legislation.

For Hacked Off’s Natalie Fenton, the editors’ rejection of some of Leveson’s recommendations as a dangerous and unnecessary step too far is ‘simply a charade’. Indeed it is ironic that the Government and the press seem to be working so closely together at a time when being seen to keep their distance from each other might be more acceptable to the wider public.  Cameron’s consideration of a ‘third way’ by introducing a Charter seems to be a political sop in an attempt to appease both sides while not really solving anything.  It does remove the whiff of statute (but would this really remove the Government’s influence further away?  Probably not when we think about the debates running for years about the BBC’s Royal Charter).  The Government still needs to find a way to placate the public even if it won’t go far enough for the Hacked Off campaign, hence we are now hearing talk of Charters, ‘civil procedures’, ‘judicial oversight’ and some other (non-Levesonian) kind of ‘verification body’. 

 Cameron can also be said to be off the hook because the Leveson Inquiry has not condemned as a whole the relationship between politicians and the media (they just got too close sometimes at the senior level), Jeremy Hunt has been exonerated and Cameron can always refer to William Hague’s point that any form of statutory underpinnings in the UK would send a green light to all those states that seek to and do curb press freedom.  Cameron has been able to set the editors to work to allow them to ensure that they can avoid backstop statutory underpinnings against the threat that the other main parties seem set on forcing a vote in favour of introducing an actual law if the editors don’t get on with it quickly.  Not surprisingly, editors of all national newspapers have agreed to implement most of Leveson’s recommendations.

Crucially Cameron was quick to appropriate the right kind of language to control the debate, specifically rejecting ‘crossing the Rubicon’, while not telling us what exactly he understood by ‘statutory underpinning’ and exactly which mechanisms will ensure or undermine the future independence of the press.  Legislation can be reformed and changed and therein lies both security for a free press and also serious danger. 

But the use of the Rubicon metaphor gives succour to those who have been drawn to citing John Milton’s response (Areopagitica, 1644) to the Order of the Long Parliament for the Regulating of Printing (14 June 1643), where Milton advocated the liberty of printing for the very sound reason that ‘when complaints are freely heard, deeply considered, and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained, that wise men look for’ (p1). Indeed who can argue against Milton’s appeal, particularly when Leveson’s statutory underpinning remedy has so clearly been cast as a slippery slope to Government control; forgetting perhaps that Milton himself advocated restrictions on some publications. 

Funnily and analogously, like the route of the River Rubicon, lines change over time and new generations will continue to navigate, cross over and negotiate them often very sensibly, for good reason and with good results.  This public and forensic examination of the press looks unlikely to lead to the outcome that Hacked Off and many of the victims of egregious press behaviour would like, but then Hacked Off cannot appropriate the metaphor of the Rubicon.  It can only continue to argue that the press will inevitably slip back into its old ways, a clarion cry for accountability and responsibility ensured through statute, which just does not seem to carry sufficient weight when set against the many examples that can be given of those states that simply craft media laws to their own liking.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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