by Brian Cathcart
Look at the Sunday papers. A barrage of abuse about Lord Justice Leveson and all he proposes, more scaremongering about the shackling and stifling of journalism, and with these some political and occasionally personal attacks on the politicians who are supporting the judge. Is the press sorry? No.
Last Thursday, after more than a year of hearing and considering the evidence, Leveson concluded ‘beyond doubt‘ that the British press had repeatedly ignored its responsibilities and in doing so had ‘damaged the public interest, caused real hardship and, also on occasion, wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people’.
You might expect humility. Imagine such a verdict on the police, on the big supermarkets, on hospitals or care homes, on members of parliament: what would the press be saying this Sunday? Would they be picking holes in the judge’s report? Would they be urging that the judge’s remedies be set aside? Would they be attacking the report’s advocates? Of course not.
When it comes to themselves and their vested interests, the editors and proprietors of most of our national papers know no shame. Watch them here, ducking and weaving before the Leveson inquiry.
No heads are rolling after Leveson’s verdict. There are no apologies. There is no soul-searching. Instead they just bitch, bully and complain.
And the complaints themselves are dishonest. The judge foresaw this as he laid out the basics of his plan for a new regulatory regime. Paragraph 73 of his executive summary said:
‘Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press. What is proposed here is independent regulation of the press organised by the press, with a statutory verification process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness are met…’
The statutory ‘recognition body’ that he proposes (which could be but doesn’t have to be Ofcom) would have no direct relationship with the national press. Nor would it pass judgement on what appeared in the press in any way. Its sole function would be to ensure that the self-regulator established by the press was not another Press Complaints Commission but instead conformed to basic standards for an effective regulator.
It is to this modest proposal that David Cameron apparently has a principled objection. I say ‘apparently‘ because it is not clear where the objection sprang from. He did not articulate it when he set up the Leveson inquiry in July 2011, nor did he express it when he gave evidence under oath to the inquiry, nor did he mention it last month when he met a group of victims of press abuses including the Dowlers, Kate McCann, Christopher Jefferies and representatives of the Liverpool Hillsborough families.
If we are to believe the prime minister now, he set up an inquiry that ran for a year, cost perhaps £5m and induced dozens to relive their appalling experiences in public – without making clear that if it recommended meaningful change he would trash it.
What now? The prime minister about to do something very strange. Having taken a supposedly principled stand on excluding politicians from any influence over the press, he is off to meet all the editors to urge them to regulate themselves properly this time. Let’s hope he doesn’t try to use any influence over them, because of course that would be contrary to his principles. (You might think, on the other hand, that the influence in the relationship between the editors and the prime minister flows largely the other way.)
And whom is he meeting? Yes, those same editors who were found guilty by Leveson of damaging the public interest, causing hardship and wreaking havoc on the lives on innocent people. Against all the evidence of history, David Cameron wants us to believe that these disreputable people will now regulate themselves in the public interest. Of course they won’t.
Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.