Last week, prompted by Section 21 orders from Lord Justice Leveson, many of the UK’s big news organisations offered qualified support for the plan put forward by Lord Black and Lord Hunt for a new system of press self-regulation based on contract law (though none have signed up to it yet).
This followed the Prime Minister’s qualified support for the plan when he came before the Leveson Inquiry on 14th June. Or rather, the Prime Minister suggested that Lord Hunt had been challenged to come up with an answer, and that answer should be considered before other proposals:
“I don’t think I have the answer, but David Hunt knows what the question is and if he can’t convince you [Lord Justice Leveson] or the political leaders who all know we have to sort this out, then that’s going to be the problem, but that’s the challenge” (David Cameron, Leveson Inquiry Oral Evidence, June 14 2012)
Yet, at the same time, the Prime Minister set a test for the Hunt/Black plan. It would not, he said, be adequate if the plan only worked for the press. Nor would it be satisfactory if it simply made politicians happy. No, Mr Cameron said, the test would be whether the plan worked for the public. Specifically, he said it had to better protect ordinary members of the public, especially those thrust into the media spotlight because of a personal tragedy. People, Mr Cameron said, like the Dowlers and the McCanns:
“I will never forget meeting with the Dowler family in Downing Street to run through the terms of this Inquiry with them and to hear what they had been through and how it had redoubled, trebled the pain and agony they’d been through over losing Milly. I’ll never forget that, and that’s the test of all this. It’s not: do the politicians or the press feel happy with what we get? It’s: are we really protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves by this process. That’s what the test is.” (David Cameron, Leveson Inquiry Oral Evidence, June 14 2012)
To remove any ambiguity, Mr Cameron repeated the need for this test latter in his evidence:
“I think we’ve discussed the overall challenge and that’s what we need to meet, and we should, as I say again, bear in mind who we’re doing this for, why we’re here in the first place, and that’s the real test. If the families like the Dowlers feel this has really changed the way they would have been treated, we would have done our job properly.” (David Cameron, Leveson Inquiry Oral Evidence, 14th June 2012)
So, how does the Hunt/Black plan measure up? What do the Dowlers and the McCanns think of it? Does it pass the Prime Minister’s test?
We learnt the answer yesterday, almost a week after the oral hearings ended, when the Inquiry published the submission of the Core Participant Victims to Module 4. These core participant victims include the Dowlers and the McCanns.
After laying out some of the principles that ought to characterise any future system, their submission says that:
“The Module 4 CPVs have considered the submissions and evidence of Lord Hunt and Lord Black. The Module 4 CPVs all agree that the proposal advocated by Lord Hunt and Black for a new contractual self-regulatory body would not be a satisfactory solution. The proposal is considered to be an insufficiently clean break from the current PCC and the failings associated with that organisation. In the event that this system was established, it is anticipated by the Module 4 CPVs that complainants would be likely to prefer court proceedings as a forum for seeking redress” (Module 4 CPVs Joint Submission)
This is not ambiguous. It does not leave wriggle room for Mr Cameron. This makes it very clear indeed that the Hunt/Black plan does not pass the Prime Minister’s test.
David Sherborne built on this verdict in his closing submission on behalf of the core participant victims:
“In the face of all that I have described, what has the press itself come up with as a solution? It appears to be the proposals which have recently come out of the still surviving, but only just breathing, Press Complaints Commission, Lord Hunt and PressBoF. I could devote my entire allotted time, which I’ve probably come close to overrunning, to explaining why we say that however well intentioned it [the Hunt/Black plan] may be, as a proposal to deal with the practice, culture and ethics we’ve witnessed, it is hopeless.” (David Sherborne, Closing Submission on behalf of CPVs, 24th July 2012)
So there we have it. The Hunt/Black plan has failed the test set for it by David Cameron. It is ‘not a satisfactory solution’, it is an ‘insufficiently clean break’, and – in Sherbornes’ words – “hopeless” as a way of dealing with the “practice, culture and ethics we’ve witnessed”.
How much coverage has the press given to this verdict? Not a single paper has reported on the written submission of the Core Participant Victims. The Guardian was the exception in reporting on David Sherborne’s closing submission (though not on the written statement).
But the statement is now there, in black and white, for the Prime Minister and other members of the government to read. It will be very difficult, having read it, for them to accept the Hunt/Black plan without ignoring the very test they set for it.