Thinking more about the Impress initiative, I think the main issue with the idea of a ‘Leveson compliant’ regulator is that Sir Brian’s principles might not be the most appropriate way to solve the problems which prompted his Inquiry in the first place.
There were several levels to the scandal:
- First, there was the actual hacking of mobile phones by the newspapers, an illegal act of intrusion and a hideous invasion of privacy.
- The second aspect to the scandal was that the police had been corrupted and co-opted by the media. The Met failed to properly investigate the hacking allegations. It was this collusion between the press and the police that meant the tabloids could bully with impunity.
- The third and final part scandal was that the politicians had also been corrupted and co-opted by the media. Ministers began working for the media barons, not for the public. Lest we forget, the collusion between the press and the politicians nearly resulted in Rt. Hon Jeremy Hunt MP signing off on Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of a controlling share in BSkyB. As he was deliberating, Hunt’s aide Adam Smith was colluding with News Corporation’s Director of Public Affairs, Fred Michel.
When people talk about the transgressions of the press, and the need to ‘rein in’ the tabloids, they are not just talking about ‘equal prominence’ corrections. They also mean to solve the problems of cosiness, collusion and corruption described above.
Two questions arise for the Impress Project (or indeed, anyone seeking to create a press regulator):
- How does a regulator ensure that the press and the police do not collude? How can we be sure that the police will never shy away from investigating their friends in the media, when someone accuses a journalist of doing something illegal?
- How does a regulator ensure that politicians do not get too cosy with the press? How can we be sure Ministers will never trade favourable policy decisions in return for favourable media coverage?
The Leveson Report offers unsatisfactory answers to these questions. Although Sir Brian dedicated large sections of his four volume report to The Press and the Police (Part G) and The Press and Politicians (Part I) his recommendations for both groups were extremely soft. As I have noted previously, Leveson effectively recommended self-regulation for both groups! He simply suggested that Ministers and senior police officers give ‘serious consideration’ to improving guidelines and codes of conduct. I think this is weak and unlikely to help discourage the kind of press-politican-police relationships that short-circuit our democracy.
So even in a Brave New ‘Leveson Compliant’ World, the public interest will still be vulnerable to the problem of collusion between politicians and the press. If we want to solve this problem, I cannot help but wonder if the very idea of a regulator is actually a red herring…