Keeping politicians, including Maria Miller, out of press regulation
The affair of Maria Miller’s expenses has given rise to a lot of humbug, much of it thoughtfully addressed here. But at least one further bit of humbug remains, and it relates to those remarks made by Mrs Miller’s special adviser in December 2012 in conversation with a Telegraph reporter investigating the minister’s expenses. The Times relates this as follows:
“Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment,” was the response of Jo Hindley, the adviser, “so I am just going to kind of flag up that connection for you to think about.” Miss Hindley went on to suggest that the reporters should speak with “people a little higher up your organisation”. Shortly afterwards she herself contacted a senior executive at that newspaper group to complain.
This has been explained in very different terms by Mrs Miller’s critics and her defenders, but for the purposes of this blog let us assume that it is what the Telegraph asserts: a veiled threat that pursuing this story might have adverse consequences for the reporter, either through action by his editor as a result of pressure from the minister or in the form of some adjustment to the press self-regulation system then under discussion.
In the view of the Telegraph and the Times this shows that Leveson exposed the press to a kind of censorship by politicians. This is humbug.
In fact, such a threat would fall squarely in the realm of behaviour that was forthrightly condemned in the Leveson Report. The judge made clear that politicians must clean up their relationship with editors and proprietors, which he portrayed as follows:
‘..First, there is the power of proprietors and the risk that it has, in itself, stifled political comment about the power of the press, contrary to the public interest. Second, there is the question about how politicians have conducted themselves in relation to that power in all its manifestations. Third, the sheer quantity of meetings between senior editors, proprietors and politicians has raised concern about the perception that, on occasion, understandings could have been reached or deals struck well out of public sight.’ (page 1410)
He recommended that there be far more transparency in the relationship:
‘As a first step, political leaders should reflect constructively on the merits of publishing on behalf of their party a statement setting out, for the public, an explanation of the approach they propose to take as a matter of party policy in conducting relationships with the press.’ (Recommendation 82)
Importantly, he added:
‘The suggestions that I have made in the direction of greater transparency about meetings and contacts should be considered not just as a future project but as an immediate need, not least in relation to interactions relevant to any consideration of this Report.’ (Rec 84)
Leveson was also adamant that politicians should have no role in the independent press self-regulator that he recommended to replace the discredited PCC (currently run by a politician), and also no role in the new body to audit the PCC replacement and check it was independent and effective.
To sum up, Leveson (a) warned about the unhealthy relationship between politicians and the press, (b) made specific recommendations to address it and (c) pointed out that this relationship could affect the way in which his own report was treated.
He can hardly be blamed if an official played the games he predicted. So who can be blamed? In other words, how did politicians come to be in the dangerously close dialogue with editors to which Ms Hindley referred?
The answer is that no sooner had Leveson reported in November 2012 – warning politicians not to meddle – than the editors began trying to persuade politicians to meddle. Leveson said, in effect: ‘The politicians should implement these recommendations with as little meddling as possible, because that would be bad for press freedom.’ But the editors and proprietors instead leapt in and begged the politicians to get involved, so they could water the recommendations down.
So it was the press itself, including the Telegraph’s then editor, Tony Gallagher, that handed ministers a whip to crack. If bankers after the crash had private meetings with ministers to secretly dilute the report of a public inquiry the press would be outraged. Similarly if doctors had done so after the Shipman affair. But no, not on this occasion.
If, in December 2012, Mrs Miller’s special adviser imagined that her minister had leverage over newspapers, it was because the newspapers had recklessly exposed themselves to that leverage. It was because editors had gone to the government and said: ‘Please use the power you have, for our advantage.’
In fact the political haggling that the editors invited went on for four months and in the end the politicians made a string of concessions in the effort to appease the press before agreeing the terms of the Royal Charter in March 2013.
But still the newspapers are unhappy, because in reality what they wanted was no Leveson at all, no change, and more PCC. Which is why they are reduced to launching IPSO.
And so determined are the newspapers to keep IPSO free of political meddling that they have made a point of ensuring that top posts are open to politicians – just like in the PCC. The Leveson Royal Charter, by contrast, having escaped from the hands of the politicians, is now virtually immune from their influence.