Earlier this year, I sat as a member of the UK Houses of Parliament Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions. It was set up around the same time as Lord Justice Leveson began his inquiry, although had a narrower remit. We took evidence from media professionals, judges, lawyers and other interested parties such as Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan. From my perspective it was a useful education, and I’m finding that it’s helping me frame my own views around the Leveson recommendations, which will be debated in the Commons on Monday. Obviously, I have some recent personal experience of being someone of interest to the media. In addition, I was one of the lucky few followed by private investigator Derek Webb on behalf of The News of the World. But my moral high-mindedness puts me way above personal animus, so don’t worry, it’s all cool.
There’s a useful discussion of the parliamentary arithmetic on Leveson here, but it’s early days yet. It’s not clear if Labour will continue to demand the full implementation of all the report’s recommendations – I think that might shift a little. And I’m not convinced the Liberal Democrats will truly, in the end, be prepared to defeat the government of which they’re a part. There’ll be quite a bit of negotiating going on in the coming weeks and we’ll need for wait and see what form the eventual draft bill will take.
For now, I’ve been struck by a few things – some possibly significant and others simply indicators of trails of discovery that might be followed in future. If I get the chance on Monday I”ll air a couple of them in the Commons. Here’s three.
First, it seems to me that Leveson’s lawyerly attempt to distinguish between ‘statutory legislation’ and ‘a statutory footing’ won’t survive contact with wider public discourse. I’m not even convinced it’s actually true to claim there’s something substantive which separates the two notions. For example, The Spectator wouldn’t sign up to the voluntary arrangment on libertarian grounds. That means that, under the Full Leveson, they’d be regulated by OFCOM. That’s statutory regulation by any standards, surely? And for the rest, OFCOM would still regulate the regulator, conducting bi-annual audits of the regulator’s performance. And then passing judgement? How we’d be supposed to present that to leaders across the world who we’d like to cut their press more slack rather than present them with more of the lash, I really don’t know. I’m also struck by how Leveson used the idea of enshrining a government’s responsibility to protect freedom of the press to present a measure which introduces statutory regulation for the first time. Isn’t that exactly the sort of device used by the aforesaid press-lashers?
Second, there’s something odd going on when professors of journalism campaign for investigative journalists to lose their data protection exemptions and decry the right of elected members of parliament to take a considered view on legislation proposed by a judge, as Professor Brian Cathcart at Hacked Off, and others have done (although see Professor Tim Luckhurst for an excellent counter-argument). Odder still to see otherwise well-regarded journalists writing pieces in the national newspapers without declaring their links with obvious vested interests. You don’t have to love the Daily Mail to think there’s something a bit funny going on here. I’m certainly queasy about the clear, but often largely unstated, links between such folk and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism whose contribution to the hounding of an unwell old man was terrible, yet whose public acceptance of that was horribly late, remains heavily caveated and doesn’t exactly leap out of its website.
Third, it seems to me there’s an intersection here between responses so far to Leveson and wider public attitudes to governance. People often say, “it’s too important for politicians”. That pretty much always means, “Leave it up to us, the unelected professionals, with our own hidden political (but small ‘p’, so that’s OK then) agendas”. So to my mind, if the press is to be regulated then it should be by parliament rather than, say, by the unelected- yet-already-enormously-powerful head of OFCOM. But that would clearly be a monstrosity. I really hope that Monday’s debate includes some folk who are prepared to argue for regulation but also to say that the most important things in life should be left democratically unaccountable.
Let’s see what happens next.