In certain countries – including not a few in the so-called free world – I couldn’t write what you are about to read. Laws would proscribe such anti-Establishment heresy, though not in Britain…not until now, that is, where the Leveson Report threatens to challenge that.
In his defence, the judge walked a tightrope over his inquiry into the ‘culture, practices and ethics’ of the Press. Because whatever were to be his findings, m’lud was inevitably stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place.
His first option was to modify the status quo – beefing up the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), with greater representation from the laity or even a judge like himself.
Inevitably, this would have laid Leveson open to accusation by certain vested interests that he buckled to the print barons and we hacks would be toasting his health in the Last Chance Saloon
His second was to recommend a new, independent body to police newspapers and, after long deliberation, Leveson plumped for it. However, if implemented it will signal a monumental blunder in the wake of the earlier one, which established his inquiry.
I’ve no criticism of the judge, who did a commendable job with an impossible brief and his observations are fair, balanced and objective.
Yet, his recommendations patently fail to square a circle he desperately sought to avoid: state licensing of the Press, totally contradicting his insistence, ‘This is not and cannot be characterised as statutory regulation’.
It can and will. Moreover, any short-term gain risks being outweighed by long-term dangers of future regimes moving the goalposts. So, small wonder David Cameron is squirming.
The inquiry might have made for compulsive telly viewing, much of it a pantomime of hot air from celebrity whingers grinding axes. But it was a monumental political gaffe to have unleashed Leveson in the first place.
The PM hung it on legitimate concern of ‘havoc’ – the judge’s own word – wreaked on innocent families, like that of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, by rabid newshounds, blatantly oblivious to their own rules of engagement.
A likelier reason, though, was Cameron trying to amend for – as his critics claim – naivety in supping with the media devil, only neglecting to take a long spoon. As Icarus flew lethally too close to the sun, he made the cardinal error of getting too cosy with The Sun newspaper (and News of the World) luminaries, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson.
Nonetheless, appointing Leveson was a silly, political knee-jerk, and one that threatens to nail Cameron for posterity as the PM who chanced 300 years of Press freedom on the toss of a judicial inquiry. In doing so, he ignored wiser heads, like Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, who noted, ‘the liberty of speaking and writing guards our other liberties’
What pains me as, I believe, a conscionable journalist is I’ve been hung out to dry with a bag of rotten apples that lurks within every profession, business and industry.
Because the overwhelmingly vast majority of us scribes don’t eavesdrop on other people’s voice-mail, hatch plots with dodgy MPs and bung coppers moolah. We see our role as uncovering and reporting the truth, but as fallible humans we don’t always get it right.
In the main I think we do, because of the 50,000-plus stories that appeared in UK publications last year, the PCC received 7,341 complaints, 719 of which were deemed to have breached the voluntary Editors’ Code of Ethics (yes, we actually have one!).
That reinforces my opinion Leveson was a crass over-reaction. Because Britain already has rigorous laws against bribery, phone-hacking and corruption, not to say protection of human rights, without having a judge reaffirm them, as Ms Brooks and Mr. Coulson will testify.
The country also has some of the world’s sternest libel laws. And, as a one-time senior, UK national newspaper executive, I have long experience of such counterweights to media excess.
Nonetheless, in a career spanning over 40 years, very occasionally and for sound reasons, I’ve supported decisions that were legally risky.
Hand on heart, I did so not simply to land a scoop, but to reveal injustices, connivances, scams and hypocracies the public deserved to know the truth of, because there are some powerful, arrogant people who abuse their positions of trust and deserve to be outed.
Sometimes, only a probing, fearless media can do that.
Which is why a lynch mob of certain aggrieved MPs salivated for Leveson to bring in a guilty verdict over the Press. The reason? Look no further than the Daily Telegraph’s exposé of their grubby expenses rip-off – based on illegally-leaked information – and the ‘entrapment’ by the Sunday Times of certain lords a-leaping for cash in return for breaching lobbying rules.
Even the dead, disgraced News of the World, sunk in the phone-hacking morass, wasn’t all boobs and celeb trash. It conducted some genuinely admirable investigations, one of the last being to bowl out a clutch of Pakistani cricketers involved in match-betting fixes.
Meanwhile, in hindsight, would you feel David Mellor – the ostensibly squeaky-clean family man-cum-political populist – still merited power, having been outed by The People over his extra-marital tryst with Antonia de Sancha?
And how would you have liked unctious Jonathan Aitken as PM – once a distinct possibility – before he was impaled on his own ‘sword of truth’ and jailed for perjury and perverting justice, after being exposed for his iffy links to Arab businessmen and lying through his teeth in a libel action against Granada TV’s World In Action?
So would you be better off without a free, self-regulated Press, warts and all, or one at the mercy off government? Alternatively, will you prefer your ‘news’ delivered by an anarchic, unpoliced Internet, where crackpots abound and Twitter twits compound libels, like misnaming Lord McAlpine a paedophile?
As several MPs sagely noted last week, state regulation of the Press is ‘absolutely pointless’ when people are able to use the Web to spread ‘lies and slurs’.
And consider: was the Leveson Inquiry solely about the ‘culture, practices and ethics’ of the Press or were other dimensions in play, a back-story so to speak?
Because, in our dog-eats-dog menagerie, some media gloried in the bloodbath of the tabloids. Unsurprisingly, most enthusiastic were standard-bearers of the illiberal Left, the pious Guardian and the haughty BBC, despite the serial cock-ups of the Jimmy Savile affair exposing its inherent hypocricy and journalistic ineptitude.
Both harbour agendas, The Guardian because anyone who disagrees with its prejudices must surely be wrongheaded and the Beeb because it feared a Murdoch takeover of Sky TV would shove it further down the road of decline.
So, too, does a cabal of righteous, self-appointed lobby groups, like the Media Standards Trust, which spawned the Hugh Grant-led ‘Hacked Off’ campaign.
Hence, despite the best intentions of Lord Leveson, his inquiry was essentially a trial of the Murdoch media, set against a Left-versus-Right political backdrop.
Its recommendations are still to be fully weighed, dissected and debated. But the final verdict rests with politicians, who equally shared the dock with the Press.
Which prompts me to ask: since when did the guilty decide the fate of co-defendants?