State control of the media? Not really…

I have been mulling over what I wanted to say about Leveson all weekend. And there has been no shorter of material to provoke my pondering.

We have Dan Hodgson in The Times, arguing that Leveson will lead inevitably to the imprisonment of newspaper editors.

We have Euan McColm in the Scotsman, putting the case that any kind of press law will lead to unacceptable political interference and, effectively, censorship.

And Iain MacWhirter in the Sunday Herald fears that newspapers would self-censor through fear of censure, and that a new law would hasten the demise of the printed press as readers turned to the unregulated internet.

To read the media coverage of Leveson, you would think that its recommendations were aimed at establishing government control of all journalists. In fact, it proposes a new self-regulatory body, with necessary incentives for membership, backed up by a legal duty on the government to uphold the freedom of the press and an independent body set up by statute to oversee matters and seek to resolve conflict quickly and inexpensively where possible.

The problem with producing a report three times the length of War and Peace is that almost no-one will read it. So anyone can assert that it says anything at all, and be pretty sure that few people can confidently contradict them. I confess I have not read the full Leveson report. I’m pretty sure you haven’t either. But I have read the summary, and the recommendations. And the near-hysterical fears being expressed across the media do not reflect these at all.

Leveson’s recommendations are careful, considered and clearly prepared in the full awareness of the arguments that would be deployed against them. So I decided the best thing I could possibly do was to let Leveson speak for himself. Here are a few key extracts.

5. There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist.

12. Although the contrary is often asserted, not a single witness has proposed that the Government or that Parliament should be able to step in to prevent the publication of anything whatsoever. Not a single witness has proposed that the Government or Parliament should themselves be involved in the regulation of the press. I have not contemplated and do not make any such proposal.

69. The legislation would not give any rights to Parliament, to the Government, or to any regulatory (or other) body to prevent newspapers from publishing any material whatsoever. Nor would it give any rights to these entities to require newspapers to publish any material except insofar as it would require the recognised self-regulatory body to have the power to direct the placement and prominence of corrections and apologies in respect of information found, by that body, to require them.

72. [The new legislation] would enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press.

73. 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 by the system in order for publishers to take advantage of the benefits arising as a result of membership.

146. This is the seventh time in less than 70 years that the issues which have occupied my life since I was appointed in July 2011 have been addressed. No-one can think it makes any sense to contemplate an eighth.

David Cameron has calculated that there is political advantage to be gained by opposing Leveson. He has apparently requested that legislation be drafted, in order to demonstrate that it will not work. I note in passing that if I were the Bill Clerk tasked with this project, and I knew the Prime Minister wanted the legislation to be unworkable, I think the legislation would probably -surprise! – turn out to be unworkable.

I also note with slight alarm that John Major, with whom I do not recall agreeing at any point in the past, seems to merit the last word here as he does in the Leveson report, with his observation that:

“it is important that whatever is recommended is taken seriously by Parliament, and it is infinitely more likely to be enacted if neither of the major parties decides to play partisan short-term party politics with it by seeking to court the favour of an important media baron who may not like what is proposed.”


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