Just as I predicted, David Cameron moved like lightning to block the merest suggestion by Lord Leveson that newspapers could be tarred by the brush of legislation. He’s right. For many reasons. Too many to mention here. And he’s as right as the judge was in many of his assertions on the best and the worst if a free press. More of that later.
But, as today’s Mirror pointed out, to legislate now, in whatever limited form, would be akin to following Caesar across the Rubicon to a situation from which there is no retreat.
There are laws, loads of them, and I see them close and personal every day, that deal with damage to reputations, invasions of privacy, bribery, trespass, harassment, contempt and all manner of issues that can be thrown at the media. There is a body in place to arbitrate at a lower level, albeit not a terribly well supported one, and we’ve seen a frenzy of police inquiries, internal investigations, arrests, jailings and sword-falling the like of which I cannot remember in 40-odd years in the business.
For the past year, any suggestion that the media is able to do what it likes and get away with it, must surely have been dispelled time and again. What’s required is a way of ensuring compliance with the laws we have already. Not new ones.
A few weeks ago, I attended a forum by the media lawyers Association at which there appeared to be a universal condemnation of any new laws to control what they already see as a fairly tightly controlled press.
From a legal perspective that may be so, from an ethical one, far from it. I heard a lot of evidence from the less glamorous end of the witness statements and recognised a lot of what was being said as a mere scratching of the surface. Hands up to that on behalf of many, and those who have listened to my after-dinner talks on “the good (sic) old days” will know what I mean.
There’s no doubt that regulation will change and firm up. And for a time after that there will be a difference to be seen. The rogue reporter (those who were caught cast out by euphemism as bad examples) will be reigned in and proprietors will once again ask editors for reassurance that “we don’t do that sort of thing, do we?”
Only when the dust settles from that and, backed (hopefully) by a few exclusives that have changed our world for the better, will we be able to judge the new ground.
Lord Leveson made a point of the fact that this was the seventh inquiry in 70 years and almost spat out the assertion that there must not be an eighth. There will be. I know thaty and so does he. Although it will not be directed entirely at the printed press.
But for now, we have to steer away from a reporting line to Ofcom or whatever other back-door route leads to a government minister (especially not a government minister) and face the music in the most accountable spirit in which we call others to account.
But forget a new press law. And forget the likes of the rather at-odds-with-itself Hacked Off campaign.
The only game in town today is Backed Off.