The upshot of Leveson — press a part of democracy, not above it

BBC News – Leveson report: Maria Miller urges swift action by press Lord Leveson has given his report on press self-regulation, and matters must now move swiftly on.

At the outset I need to admit I have not read his 2,000 page report. I doubt many have. In a sense, it is already irrelevant, because what matters now is not what Leveson said, but what government will do about it. We are already looking at the prospect of a bill put forward by the government which will have the support of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but not by David Cameron’s Conservatives. Whether such a bill can actually make it through the House of Commons is another matter.

The upshot of Leveson’s inquiry, though, is to sharpen the question of whether the press is a part of democracy, or above it. The Conservative view is that Parliament should have no role in setting limits to the press — the press needs to do that itself. The Liberal Democrat (and, it seems, Labour) view is that having attempted non-statutory self-regulation, and found it wanting, the case is clear that Parliament should assert its authority.

In a sense, this is the difference between Liberalism and Libertarianism. Liberalism is about maximising the freedoms for everyone, even if this means limiting the freedoms of some. Libertarianism is about refusing to limit any freedoms, even if the upshot is that the rights of some are infringed by the freedoms of others.

No British political party welcomes government by the arbitrary restriction of freedoms. In that sense, Britain is a liberal democracy. The question is, what freedoms must be restricted, to what extent, and by whom.

In most cases this depends on the people exercising them. Although Parliament has the power to legislate on anything, it tends only to legislate either to promote the specific policy objectives of the party in power, or in response to abuse of existing freedoms.

At the same time that we are looking at regulation of the press, we are also looking at the regulation of pay-day loan companies, and at a minimum per-unit price on alcohol. Both of these other issues are the result of abuses. In the case of pay-day loan companies, interest is being charged at many thousands of percent per annum on those least able to manage their own financial affairs. While the responsible end of credit companies have worked hard to assure that people do not put themselves in financial difficulties through borrowing, the pay-day companies have exploited people’s financial difficulties in order to profit from ruinous borrowing. With alcohol, the availability of cheap ways to get drunk at home has had a savage effect on the health and well being of many, and, incidentally, a destructive impact on pubs and restaurants.

We would not be debating any kind of regulation on the press if the existing system of press regulation was working. I’ve commented on that elsewhere, which prompted a long phone call with the communications lead at the Press Complaints Commission who felt I had been unfair. In principle, I agreed with her — when functioning as advertised, the PCC would have done the job. In practice, my experience was I set it out. Leveson seems to have come to a similar view.

The reality is that the vast majority of articles published in the vast majority of newspapers are honest, as accurate as the journalist could make them, provide a valuable service to the readers, and were generated through a legitimate and upright process. The problem is that a small minority of stories were anything but — and it was often those stories which provided the big headlines, the scoops stories and the enormous sales on which some major national titles depended.

The reign of terror inflicted on the JK Rowlings, the McCanns and the Dowlings, among many others, should not stand in any democratic system.

At the moment, no-one is proposing a government-run body to supervise the press. Government supervision of what the press can publish would set our democracy back hundreds of years. We need a free press as part of the way we hold politicians, big companies, rogue traders and pressure groups to account. We are already beginning to see the impact of inadequate protection of the press in the way in which scientific journals are receiving threats of legal action because they are publishing papers with which vested interests disagree. We need more protection for the press to publish those kind of public interest stories, not less.

What we are looking to is an independent regulator with statutory teeth. The possibility, for example, of genuinely large fines that threaten the viability of the most profitable and frequent offenders is something that self-regulation cannot provide. In a self-regulatory regime, a paper faced with a choice between going out of business or ignoring the regulator would — from a commercial point of view — most likely ignore the regulator. Self-regulation organisations are aware of this, and are therefore unlikely ever to attempt to impose tough sanctions that they cannot enforce.

Leveson does not go far enough for the McCanns — as we heard eloquently put by  Gerry McCann on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. He goes too far for David Cameron, who described his proposals as a Rubicon we dare not cross.

It’s easy to dismiss Cameron as making a political judgement to keep his friends in the media on-side. Certainly the investigation, and the arrests which have been linked with the same issues, are difficult for him politically. But his concerns are legitimate. We must not put a tool into the hands of parliament which a benign government will only use for good, but which opens the door for manipulation at a later stage.

Nonetheless, the current situation cannot continue.

It is now the task of parliament to turn Leveson’s proposals into something which does not realise Cameron’s worst fears, but which provides a remedy so effective and substantial that the worst offenders change their practice to something which — in the rush for headlines — does not trample the rights of the innocent in the name of freedom.