Talking Politics

Leveson offers a moderate compromise but critics won’t listen

The screeching surrounding the Leveson report is utterly disproportionate to the recommendations found inside it. There are faults to this document and as a supporter of self-regulation I am not liable to be sympathetic to it. But the Leveson report is moderate, balanced, sensible and practical.

Is it, as Leveson claims, self-regulation? Sort of. Not really. If a man broke into your house and forced you to hug your wife at gunpoint that would still technically be giving a hug, but not in any genuine sense. Leveson is the man with the gun. He's allowing the press to set-up the body but if it doesn't Ofcom becomes the de-facto regulator. It's a threat so severe it makes self-regulation a mirage: technically true, but not in spirit.

So why would anyone who believes in self-regulation accept these proposals? Because the press had become an independent power structure in Britain. It was unaccountable, irresponsible, bullying and failing in some of the central tenants of its mission statement, such as holding the powerful to account. Instead it attacked the poor and vulnerable, left businessmen and bankers alone and indulged in immoral and illegal practices.

Leveson had to find a middle path which would bring it under some form of control without overly-upsetting the press. Unfortunately, the press lobby is evidently unable to compromise. It treats this middle-of-the-road, least-bad solution as if it were the second coming of Mussolini. We are all the poorer for this level of debate.

This is how Leveson compromised: He did not propose a mandatory system. It is voluntary. The most cogent argument against statutory regulation is that the state would be the body authorising journalists, who are tasked with challenging its power and holding it to account. That's plainly intolerable.

Instead, Leveson effectively bribes publishers. He ups the financial costs of settling legal cases out of court, including making it possible for claimants and defendants to pay litigation costs even if they win. He creates an arbitration arm for settling legal disputes in the regulator which would settle cases quickly and cheaply. This is the incentive for publishers to take part.

It's a potentially game-changing development. It deals with one of the great injustices of our libel system — that it can only be used by the insanely rich. This gives an ordinary member of the public justice which had previously been denied to them. On the press side, it limits the costs of a libel fight, which can often be ruinous. B y minimising the costs, it deals with one of the weakest aspects of the press. Why was there no coverage of Jimmy Saville's alleged crimes? Because he was litigious. Those with the wealth and inclination to carry out legal cases are protected by an unjust legal system and this measure goes some way towards fixing it. It is to be strongly welcomed.

Unfortunately, Leveson goes a step further, and recommends that a statutory body such as Ofcom takes responsibility for monitoring the new regulator. I'm not sure that putting this recognition of the body on a statutory footing would actually be effective — I'm not even sure why it would be. Furthermore it most certainly should not be Ofcom, whose chairman is appointed by the media secretary. The proposal does cross a line, although it is far short of that which would justify the biblical rhetoric deployed by those in the press today.

However, even without that caveat, this report still needed legislation to give the arbitration arm recognition in the court system. It's also worth remembering that this legislation will be the first to enshrine the freedom of the press in law.

It is also genuinely independent — with serving editors having their wings clipped and kept off all but one of its boards. Serving politicians are similarly kept off. A majority of the boards must be non-journalists.

That's specifically the opposite of what I would want. I prefer a 51% journalist constitution so that public interest claims get a fair hearing. But Leveson introduced some other decent ideas for public interest, including offering a voluntary service by the regulator to editors as they put the story together. He also backed the Nation al Union of Journalists (NUJ) proposal for a conscience clause in journalists' contracts and the setting up of a whistle-blower line.

There are other concerns. The recommendation against 'off-the-record' briefings between police and press will make crime reporting much more difficult and seems entirely unjustified by the discoveries of the inquiry. David Cameron was right to raise the alarm over reforms to the data protection law, which could hit investigative reporters.

But generally this was an example of someone trying to find a solid, workable solution to a horribly convoluted constitutional issue. It would be nice to think that we can debate these ideas with the respect that such weighty matters deserve. The knee-jerk reaction so far suggests that's overly-optimistic.