Sunday, 2 December 2012

Leveson at last

So then, Leveson. I had vowed to say nothing about it until I'd inwardly digested all 1987 pages (including bibliography and notes) of Lord Justice Brian's long-awaited, and certainly long, report. But that's rather like when I decided to read the Bible from cover to cover and then gave up two-thirds of the way through Exodus. Actually, the Bible's a thrilling page-turner compared to Leveson, even the bits that explain in exhaustive detail what varieties of animal are and are not acceptable for sacrifice. So that's the first thing: it's boring.

Partly, I suppose, the dullness comes from the predictability. The cases of press intrusion that Leveson enumerates have all been gone over time and time again. Take Max Mosley, for example. First there was the court case, in which Mosley and Mr Justice Eady dealt a well-earned spanking to the News of the World. He was a hero then, but has since become a bore, hawking his familiar complaints around endless committee rooms and TV studios. His appearance before Leveson added little, and the write-up of his case in the report adds nothing at all.

Leveson's predictability, though, goes beyond the familiar nature of much of the evidence, and the fact that the central conclusion - calling for a semi-independent regulatory body with statutory "underpinning" - was well trailed in advance. Leveson plods through the evidence, showing little insight and almost never offering an original observation. There's no analysis beyond a general sense that the press's critics are right and its defenders wrong. The turgidity of the prose seems to be an accurate reflection of the turgidity of the judge's brain.

Perhaps he doesn't understand journalism. (He can't write, after all.) His regime, which requires meticulous record-keeping and would remove vital protection of investigative journalists from the rigours of the Data Protection Act, would make the most vital functions of a free press in exposing corruption and wrongdoing next to impossible. These proposals are astonishing, and show the dangers of the demand by Ed Miliband and the Hacked Off campaign, that Leveson's recommendations be adopted "in full." If Parliament's job were simply to rubber-stamp the opinions of a single judge, we might as well abolish democracy entirely and hand legislative responsibility to the judiciary. They would, of course, make a pig's ear of it, because however knowledgeable judges are about the law, they have the same occupational blind spot as members of other professions and callings, the assumption that what they happen to be expert in is the only thing that really matters.

Leveson almost entirely dismisses of the internet as a source of news, although he seems to make a bizarre exception for Mail Online, which he thinks "legitimately proud" of its large international readership, most of whom are there to gawk at celebrities' fashion faux-pas and suggestive pictures of under age girls. It might be said that the internet was beyond his strict remit. In the strict sense it was. But he was clearly free to point out that an inquiry into press ethics that ignored the media revolution that is going on all around us is bound to be inadequate. Instead, he appears to have taken the absence of cyberspace from his terms of reference as evidence that it is of fairly peripheral importance to the newspaper industry. The result is a report that might as well have fallen stillborn from the press.

Largely as a result of the head of steam that built up before and during Leveson's hearings, there will be some new form of much tougher press regulation, with or without "statutory underpinning." The press managed to resist such a conclusion for decades, eking out the last rounds in last-chance saloon. That they must surrender now is not because their abuses are greater than formerly. By any objective measure, press behaviour today, while far from perfect, is considerably less egregious than it was during, say, the 1980s. Most of the abuses into which Leveson inquired dated back several years: in Charlotte Church's case, a decade or more.

Some were, it is true, more recent, such as the smearing of Christopher Jefferies after his arrest by police investigating the murder of Joanna Yeates. He was, of course, entirely innocent; his innocence, indeed, should have been obvious from the start. But the press's behaviour didn't go unpunished. Two newspapers were held in contempt of court and Mr Jefferies won considerable damages from several titles. It's often forgotten that in defaming the retired teacher, the press were following a strong lead from the local police. To say that is not to defend their libellous and prejudicial pursuit of Jefferies, but it does perhaps point to the real problem here, which is the tendency of the press to be too close to the police and insufficiently critical of their shortcomings. This is but a subset of a wider issue: the vulnerability of much of the media (including the broadcast media) to official mindsets and pre-packaged points of view. But it would have been too much to expect Leveson to get to grips with that.

But to return to the point: it is because the newspaper industry is severely weakened that even though it has been cleaning up its act for some years now - even if there is much further to go - it is facing regulation today. In previous decades, its power was such that it could ride out bigger storms. At the heart of the various proposals for press regulation and oversight, whether Leveson's or those coming from Lords Hunt and Black on behalf of the industry itself, is a paradox. If statutory regulation is now imposed on an unwilling press (as might still happen) it will be because the press is no longer powerful enough to need statutory regulation.

And even if the press escapes statutory regulation (or independent regulation "underpinned by statute") it will give itself something almost indistinguishable from what Leveson is now proposing, just to save it from what Leveson actually is proposing. This is why most of this week's debate is hot air. Whether the regulation be underpinned by statute or not makes little difference. Either way it will be "independent" - in other words, it will be some sort of quango. It will be stuffed with the usual people of impeccable liberal credentials whose real talents are for empire-building and securing themselves attractive pension plans. The press is the main remaining area of public life over which the class of regulators has no control, and now is their chance to make good the lack.  But would a press controlled by the same regulatory oligarchy as the rest of the country's institutions be so preferable to one controlled by an oligarchy of press barons?

Statutory underpinning would not imply political or state control of the press, nor would voluntary "self-regulation" (which will not actually be self-regulation, for independent self-regulation is a contradiction in terms) imply that the press remains free or unfettered. Either way, ultimate control of the press is handed over to a quango or a quasi-quango staffed by people whose job is to represent the public interest but over whom the public have no control. The people can neither vote them out nor refuse to buy their product; and in need of something to fill their days as the press turns more and more risk-averse the regulators will find themselves listening to advice from special-interest groups and commissioning reports of their own.

Leveson himself (clear-sighted for once) anticipates much of this: buried in the report are several comments to the effect that "representatives bodies", rather than individuals who have been traduced or libelled, will have the major role in bringing matters of wider interest to the attention of the new regulator. Typically, he seems to think that this is a good thing. It isn't. Many such pressure groups believe deep down that all British newspapers should be indistinguishable from the Guardian. But there's only room for one Guardian, and they way things are going there may not for much longer be room even for one.

Lord Justice Leveson has written a staggeringly boring report. Let not his legacy be a staggeringly boring press.