Leveson: the messy truth about regulating the press

The big story in Britian’s media this week has been the publication of the Leveson Report into the press.  This comes from Lord Justice Leveson’s extensive inquiries into abuses perpetrated by Britain’s newspapers.  The newspapers, of course, have been anxious to get their answer in, starting days before the report was actually published.  But bloggers have been diving in as well.  I have neither read the report, nor all this commentary in detail.  But stepping back, I find something rather striking.  Mostly the arguments are made on grounds of high principle.  If only life were that easy.

Critics focus on the report’s recommendation that a new regulatory regime for the press should have “statutory underpinning”.  This is taken to mean state regulation, and even state licensing of news publications.  And this in turn runs against the sacred principle of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  So supporters of the report’s recommendations are attacking a free press.  This argument is pushed by the usual suspects in the press itself.  But not just them.  There is Lib Dem blogger Stephen Tall, for example, supported by the Facebook site Vote Clegg Get Clegg.

Most Lib Dems, though, support their leader Nick Clegg’s backing of the report.  For them the sacred liberal principle is the protection of the weak against the unaccountable power of the press.  Pres self-regulation has been tried so many times and found wanting that something stronger is required, they say.  “Do it for Milly Dowler,” they say referring to one of the most egregious episodes of press abuse.  They think the promise by newspapers that this time it will different is just a cynical ploy, so that they drift back to their old ways when the dust settles.  They have form after all.

I was planning to take sides in this debate – and in support of the report’s full recommendations.  Most of the arguments against are pretty specious.  I don’t think freedom of the press is being attacked in any meaningful way.  The accountability of the press to its readers, who may always refuse to buy newspapers, doesn’t work either.  Unfortunately the readers are part of the problem.  And the idea that we shouldn’t attempt to regulate the press because the scheme ignores the internet is a classic red herring.  Behind this lies my intense dislike of the baleful influence of many newspaper publishers on political debate, to say nothing of the cynical disregard they have members for the public.

The fact is that running a liberal society is a balancing act, much though we like to think of it as being the upholding of high principle.  Freedom leads to abuse: people will always try to use it for the purposes of harming others.  There have to be laws and regulations to limit the damage – but it is rarely clear exactly where the line should be drawn.  But it is clear that we all have to put up with a certain amount of abuse if the regulatory framework is to do more good than harm.

This is painful.  I find this especially so in the case of politics.  The British press consistently puts about lies and half-truths in order to further their sponsors’ own political agendas – or simply because it encourages people to buy papers.  This overwhelmingly favours political conservatives.  But there really isn’t much that can be done about this.  Regulation of broadcast media is quite successful – but the press is quite a different matter.  Regulation, if we have it, must focus on the rights and privacy of ordinary members of the public – and not politics.

It follows that any regulatory solution has to be a messy compromise, whose effectiveness turns on tiresome details.  Trying to derive your views by basing them on high principles doesn’t work.  The Prime Minister, David Cameron, opposes the “statutory underpinning”.  This is no doubt a political calculation, as the Conservative Party depends heavily on the press to do a lot of its dirty work – the sort of negative campaigning that would be done by paid advertising in the US.  But one point he made did strike a chord.  He said that any law to implement the recommendations would be highly complicated, and probably not worth the trouble.

He may be right.  The power of the press is fading.  Newspaper circulations are falling.  Old fashioned press barons are slowly being replaced by faceless, calculating corporate types.  People rely on newspapers less and less.  They are being replaced by a combination of broadcast media and internet outlets.  That brings its own problems.  No doubt the press’s behaviour has helped to hasten its demise.  What is good for short term sales can damage long term results, like sliced bread or lager.

That’s probably for the best.  But please, liberals, don’t pretend that this debate is all about sacred principles.

Murchoch and BSkyB: Hunt isn’t the issue. It’s Cameron

The Culture Secretary is in a tight political spot.  He showed overt political support for Rupert Murdoch’s News International media empire, and especially its attempt to consolidate its hold in the highly successful British satellite broadcasting business BSkyB.  Today was supposed to be his moment of truth, in front of the Leveson inquiry.  There is much speculation that he will be forced to resign.  That may be so, but based on today’s evidence I don’t think he’s the main culprit in a shabby episode.

The story so far.  Back in 2010 Murdoch launched his bid on BSkyB, which his empire controlled but did not fully own.  Because of its wider implications this was referred to the government, which was required to act in a quasi-judicial capacity – that it acts with the same impartiality and fairness of process as a court of law.  The minister given responsibility for this was the Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable.  But Dr Cable (as he likes to be known) made some rather rash comments about the Murdoch empire to undercover reporters working for the Daily Telegraph (which ironically opposed the bid).  As soon as these became public, Murdoch objected that he did not have the necessary degree of impartiality for a quasi-judicial role.  Within hours the job was given to Mr Hunt instead.

But Mr Hunt, it now turns out, was the subject of intense lobbying by the Murdochs (mostly via their respective minions), and had been lobbying the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in their support.  The awkward issue is that if Dr Cable was unfit for the job because he was biased one way, then Mr Hunt was equally unfit because he was unbiased the other way.  As the closeness of the relationship between Mr Hunt and the Murdoch empire became clear, there were calls on him to resign.  These were strong enough for his special adviser, Adam Smith, to fall on his sword.

The logic of this is that Mr Hunt should have refused the job.  But the nature of his relationship with the Murdochs, and his views of the bid, were certainly known to Mr Cameron.  Surely the bigger problem was the Mr Cameron appointed him to do the job in the first place.  The communications between Mr Hunt and Downing Street (actually with George Osborne rather than the PM directly) seem to show this.

Mr Hunt’s defence is that once he got the job, he created a robust decision-making process that transcended his prior inclinations – and that the decisions he did make showed no bias (before the bid was overwhelmed by the phone hacking scandal that engulfed the Murdoch empire).  The trouble is that exactly the same defence is available to Dr Cable, who was much more scrupulous about showing distance.  Indeed I suspect that Dr Cable would have been driven to approve the bid since the main objections to bid did not form a substantial barrier legally.  To Dr Cable passing this particular baton over was a silver lining to the very dark cloud that this embarrassing affair comprised.

It was Mr Cameron that acted inappropriately.  If he accepts Mr Hunt’s defence, he should not have stripped Dr Cable of the job, and made the same defence of him.  If he was worried about open bias, he should have found somebody other than Mr Hunt to replace him – and that is what he should have done.

That won’t help Mr Hunt.  Just as Adam Smith’s resignation was meant to protect his master, Mr Hunt may need to take the rap for his boss.  The whole Murdoch episode is toxic to Mr Cameron.  He badly needs to make it go away.