#Leveson recommends self-regulation… for the politicians

Right. We all got a bit distracted there for a moment. What were we talking about? Oh yeah…

Almost all the debate about #Leveson so far is over whether the Government should introduce statutory regulation of the press. The other grave issues covered by the Inquiry, and Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations for how to fix them, seem to have prompted less discussion.

The tunnel vision of the political class, and it’s obsession with press regulation, is partly to blame for this. But it is also the fault of Lord Justice Leveson himself. He offers a detailed plan for how a new self-regulatory body might be emboldened by some kind of law… but fewer ideas on how to regulate the way the media interacts with the police and politicians.

This is a shame, because the ambivalence of the police to the practice of phone hacking (if not outright collusion) was the most shocking of last year’s revelations. It was the failure to properly investigate the phone hacking that made this controversy into a bona fide ‘gate’. Had the police done their job, and not sought friendship and favour with the News International titles and other tabloids, then the entire controversy would have amounted to nothing more than a few criminal prosecutions.

The real scandal is that both the police and the politicians thought that inaction was appropriate and normal. Had the police had taken a more proactive approach, is is doubtful that the News of the World editors would have been emboldened to break any laws in the first place!

What does Leveson recommend for this malaise affecting our boys in blue? A vague sense that the police should be… better. He speaks of “inculcating the right sense of professional pride” (Executive Summary, para 92) in the police and that they self-report the off-the-record briefings they give to the press. It is for the club of Chief Police Officers to decide how junior officers should interact with journalists. Chief Constables themselves should “lead by example”. And “serious consideration” should be given to the idea of a 12 month cooling-off period between leaving a police force and working for a news outlet.

Lord Justice Leveson also considers the relationship between politicians an lobbyists, and in particular the collusion between Adam Smith (Jeremy Hunt’s right-hand-man) and Fred Michel, Public Affairs advisor to News International. Leveson says:

120. I have concluded that a combination of these factors has contributed to a lessening of public confidence in the conduct of public affairs, by giving rise to legitimate perceptions and concerns that politicians and the press have traded power and influence in ways which are contrary to the public interest and out of public sight. These perceptions and concerns are inevitably particularly acute in relation to the conduct by politicians of public policy issues in relation to the press itself.

A few paragraphs later, Leveson exonerates Jeremy Hunt of wrongdoing, and attributes Adam Smith’s failings to some kind of man-crush (“when faced with the intimacy, charm, volume and persistence of Mr Michel’s approaches, he was put in an extremely difficult position”).

Leveson’s assessment of this relationship?

The processes that were put in place to manage the bid did not prove to be robust enough in this particular respect.

This feels at once obvious and incomplete. Yes, yes, Jeremy Hunt was not actively and personally slipping the quiz answers directly to Rupert Murdoch. But Adam Smith was, as a special advisor, part of the Government. He and Fred Michel together short-circuited the process by which this major corporation made submissions to the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport, on a matter that would have given huge power, and a lot of money, to News Corp. This was anti-democratic and wrong. As with the police failings described above, the fact that the political elites acquiesced to this kind of behaviour compounds the scandal.

Leveson’s recommendation to correct this is that politicians be more “transparent” in their meetings with lobbyists like Fred Michel (paragraphs 134-136). But in this crucial area he does not suggest legislation. The regime he proposes instead reads very much like, well, self regulation for the politicians! His prescription for the malaise is that that ministers give “serious consideration” to giving “some degree” of information over and above what the law requires.  (This reminds me of suggestion that, rather than close tax-loop holes, the Government should ask Starbucks et al to voluntarily pay more tax than the law requires.)

Lord Justice Leveson has produced a report that recommends legislation to keep the press in order, but suggests self-regulation and guidelines for the police and politicians. In justifying this, Leveson cites the previous opportunities the press has been given to effectively self-regulate. But it is not as if either the police or politicians have an unblemished record of self-regulation! Think of the MPs expenses scandal; think of the botched Hillsborough investigation.

If there has to be legislation, why not regulate the behaviour of the police and politicians in relation to the press? Perhaps the best practice Leveson identifies could be a little more binding than simply ‘guidelines’?

(An edited version of this is cross-posted on Liberal Conspiracy).

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