Hacked Off: What did we do? And did we win?
by Brian Cathcart
Since the publication of the Leveson report last November, Hacked Off has had a simple mission: to do all we could to secure the implementation of the judgeʼs recommendations on press self-regulation.
These were the measured and careful conclusions of a senior judge after he had heard, in public, the views and the experiences of every conceivable stakeholder. We took the view that there would have been no point to the whole inquiry exercise, if the judgeʼs proposals were simply shelved.
We also believed that this particular inquiry had a special status. By their own admission in July 2011, our politicians had got too close to the editors and proprietors, or alternatively had allowed themselves to be bullied by them. These politicians could not be trusted to deal with the problem, so they outsourced the problem to Lord Justice Leveson. In those circumstances it would have been doubly wrong for them to reject or dilute the solutions he proposed, assuming they were reasonable.
And there was another factor. This was the seventh such inquiry into the press in 70 years, and all of the previous reports had been watered down or ignored, usually as a result of a cosy conspiracy between politicians and editors. Like the judge, and like most of the public, we believed that it was time to break that pattern.
What right did we have to involve ourselves?
We started in the spring of 2011 as a campaign for a public inquiry into the phone hacking scandal, but we had grown. Our petition for the implementation of the Leveson recommendations has gathered some 175,000 signatures. Tens of thousands of people have signed up for our emailed newsletters, and many of them have written to their MPs about implementing the report.
We knew that we were in tune with public opinion, as revealed in successive opinion polls (although these polls are rarely given publicity in the press).
And importantly we enjoy the support and the active engagement of many people who have experienced the worst the press can do, from Liverpool Hillsborough families to the McCanns. These were in many cases people who described their experiences to the inquiry, and who had a natural interest in seeing some consequences flow from that.
One reason why the six previous inquiries failed to improve things was that the public and the victims were excluded from the political process that followed. We wanted to prevent that happening again and the prime minister said he agreed on this. He told the inquiry he believed the real test of the outcome of the inquiry was whether it delivered what the victims wanted.
What happened when the report was published?
Although the judge called for an open and transparent process of implementation, the politicians immediately took the whole matter behind closed doors. And David Cameron, who had never previously revealed such a scruple, announced that he was reluctant to legislate in any way in relation to the press, even though the Leveson recommendations carefully protected free speech.
The Conservatives next proposed the use of Royal Charter instead of legislation to implement the recommendations and within weeks they had sunk deep into negotiations with editors and proprietors who were determined to water down the Leveson recommendations to the point where they had no impact. These were the same editors and proprietors found by Lord Justice Leveson to have ʻwreaked havoc in the lives of innocent peopleʼ.
Meanwhile, most national newspapers embarked on a campaign of disinformation about the Leveson recommendations, wrongly suggesting that they threatened freedom of expression, that they gave the police new powers in relation to journalism and that they would deter investigation and reporting.
What did we do?
We met politicians of all parties to find out what they were thinking and doing, to press the case for implementing the press regulation recommendations and to urge them to be more transparent and open.
We drafted, published and consulted upon a ʻLeveson Billʻ which would implement the recommendations in the way the judge intended.
We did our best to counter false press propaganda about the Leveson recommendations and to expose the role of proprietors and editors in their secret negotiations with Conservatives aimed at neutering the Leveson scheme.
All of this we did so far as was practical in public, and our activities can be tracked on our website. We reported on meetings with ministers, and we published relevant documents.
What did we NOT do?
For one, we did not decide the outcome. It is easily forgotten that the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties backed Leveson from the day of publication, and together they can outvote the Conservatives in both houses of parliament. Labour and the Liberal Democrats – Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg – were decisive.
We worked with both parties, and with Conservative backbenchers who shared our views, on the details of a Leveson-compliant settlement. We discussed our draft Bill with them. We discussed a possible Charter solution with them and suggested drafting. At every stage we urged all involved to stick as closely as possible to the Leveson recommendations.
We did not dictate policy to them, though it is true that we often reminded them and everybody else who would listen that Levesonʼs press self-regulation proposals are a complete package, and compromising on it was likely to render it ineffective.
We did not add amendments to the Defamation Bill. We had nothing to do with that, although we sympathised with peers who were angry at the prospect of a secret stitch-up over Leveson. We did, however, encourage and help backbenchers and frontbenchers alike to table Leveson-based amendments to the Enterprise Bill and to the Crime and Courts Bill as a means of putting pressure on the Conservatives to change course.
What happened at the famous Sunday night meeting?
We were invited by Milibandʼs team (it was his meeting, in his office), though it was clear that a three-party agreement had already been reached before we arrived. David Cameron had seen that he was likely to lose votes in both houses and so he reconsidered his position. He accepted the Labour-LibDem draft Royal Charter and the minimal statutory underpin needed to protect the chartered body from political interference (a measure suggested by Hacked Offʼs chairman).
We were there, at least in part, to help those present address the Prime Minister’s test. Was the solution one that worked for victims of press abuse and not for the convenience of politicians?
The discussions that night related mainly to two things. The first was how the process would unfold in Parliament next day in a way that all the politicians were comfortable with, and that did not permit any last-minute changes that might ʻsell outʻ the Leveson scheme. There was little argument about this.
The second was the so-called incentives to the self-regulation scheme, involving exemplary damages and court costs. Hacked Off had done a great deal of research and consultation on these matters, and we regard them as essential to effective self-regulation. We made recommendations in keeping with our Leveson Bill proposals. Oliver Letwin, for the Conservatives, was working from his own draft. Labour and the Liberal Democrats had their own views.
In the event there was no agreement on these matters and it was decided to let the Conservative draft go forward as amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill, but to discuss them further over the next week before the Bill reached its final stages in the Lords. Those discussions have been going on, and we have blogged and issued statements about them.
Did we win?
Itʼs only a beginning and it is happening in ways that Lord Justice Leveson never envisaged, but we believe that this Royal Charter has the ability to deliver effective, independent press self-regulation in line with the Leveson recommendations.
Thanks to the protective clause of legislation, and to a host of measures written into the Charter, this system should be entirely free of political interference and influence. It also poses no threat to freedom of expression. This is a result we welcome, though at the time of writing we still await the final details of the settlement, relating to the incentives.
The recognition body, which must carry out periodic checks on the press self-regulator to ensure it meets basic standards, will be established. That will take some months. Meanwhile the press has been working on setting up a regulator and that process is also likely to take months. Some newspapers say they will not join, but they do not have to in the first instance. We hope that ultimately they will see it as worthwhile and the right thing to do.
Do we regret anything?
We do not regret doing all we could as a campaigning and lobbying group to ensure that the voices of the victims and the many supporters of the Leveson recommendations were not excluded from these discussions. We were ready, and victims of press abuses were ready, to meet almost anybody, almost anywhere in the pursuit of that aim.
We do not regret accepting money to fund our activities from some people who did not want their donations made public. We understand and respect their desire to avoid the kind of hostile treatment that has been dished out to people who openly criticise the press, and we are grateful to them for their generosity. We are grateful too, to the very many generous people who have given money openly. We have been open from the outset about our funding.
Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.