London—1. What is Leveson and why should I care? Set up in response to the phone hacking scandal in Britain, Judge Brian Leveson’s independent “inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press” was the first time Rupert Murdoch and his good-for-nothing son James ever had to face serious questions about the way they run their media empire. Indeed James’s pathetic performance, and his monumental lack of curiousity about the way News International employees hacked the phones and computers of private citizens, slandered the company’s enemies in its papers, and routinely bribed public officials is the main reason Murdoch minor was ousted from the family newspaper business and packed off to New York in disgrace. More broadly the inquiry, which began in July 2011 and has just published its final 2,000-page report, offers a fascinating, detailed look at the what can happen when corporate power and influence are allowed unchecked and unhindered access to politicians desperate to curry media favor. Americans inclined to feel it can’t happen here should imagine—or just remember—a country where Fox News has a Republican administration in the White House.
2. So why have the British suddenly got their knickers in a twist? Because having set up the inquiry, picked the chairman and set his terms of reference Prime Minister David Cameron has now refused to back Leveson’s conclusions. Cameron claims that following Leveson’s recommendation for a system whereby voluntary self-regulation of the press by a truly independent body (unlike the current Press Complaints Commission, widely derided as a toothless club run by and for the big press barons) would be underpinned by new legislation giving the new body standing in law (and allowing Britain’s notorious libel courts to recognize the new arbitrator’s decisions) would amount to crossing “the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into law of the land.” Labour leader (and former Nation intern) Ed Miliband disagrees, calling on the government to implement Leveson’s recommendations in full. As it happens, so does Deputy Prime Minister (and former Nation intern!) Nick Clegg, who took the unprecendented step of making his own speech to Parliament setting out his disagreement with his coalition partner.
3. Crikey! Does this mean the government might fall? Probably not. But the rift between Clegg and Cameron is serious, and if Clegg had been looking for an excuse to flounce out of the coalition Leveson is a better cause than most. But Clegg knows his party would be wiped out if an election were held anytime soon; his only hope is to hang on till 2015 and hope either (a) the economy turns around and he gets some of the credit or (b) the economy is still flatlining but voters love the idea of coalition government only with Labour as the senior partner. Siding with Miliband over Leveson is the political equivalent of a “meet cute” between two people unhappily married to others: it gives them an excuse to talk, and a small sense of whether they might actually run off together someday.
4. But doesn’t Cameron have a point about press regulation? Index on Censorship thinks so. The former cold war scolds have been groping for relevance for decades (and sometimes, as in their Libel Reform campaign, actually finding some.) But the group’s warning that any action by Parliament “could be the start of a slippery slope of government interference in the media” is frankly, idiotic (but immensely useful for Cameron). Article 19, a group equally committed to free speech, welcomed Leveson’s conclusions, saying: “Statutory underpinning of self-regulation, proposed by his report, does not contradict international standards on press freedom.” It’s true that without a written constitution, Britain has no easy way to give the press protection comparable to the simple “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” But Americans also have a constitutional right to privacy. Britons currently have neither, encouraging a prurient, gossip-obsessed tabloid press to hound the powerless while giving it neither the power nor the protection which would allow it to hold the powerful to account.
5. This “statutory underpinning”—is it some kind of weird foundation garment? No. The idea is that the press would regulate itself, setting up a body to arbitrate complaints, find facts and impose fines (up to £1 million) on offenders. Most members of this regulator would be drawn from the general public (instead of press owners or their employees); politicians would not be allowed to serve. However the body itself would be “underpinned”—given some standing—in law, which would allow the courts to treat its findings as conclusive evidence. It would also allow the courts to treat news organizations who refused to join (as the proprietor of the Daily Express, which published scurrilous lies about the McCanns, a Northern Irish couple whose daughter Madeleine disappeared in 2005, simply refused to join the Press Complaints Commission) differently from those who offered a chance of cheap, speedy redress through the new regulator. For example Leveson suggested that news organizations who stayed outside the new self-regulator would be unable to recover their own legal costs in libel actions—even if they won. Which would be a powerful incentive for joining. He also said that given the press’s history of failed self-regulation, the current broadcast regulator Ofcom would serve as a “backstop” able to step in if the new self-regulator fails to perform as it should. This places the state not just at arm’s length from regulating the press, but as Brian Cathcart of the Hacked Off campaign put it “at two arms’ length.” It is also worth emphasizing that Leveson says that Parliament should enshrine freedom of the press in any new law—not as an afterthought, but as a principal aim.
6. So what happens now? The government will prepare a draft bill turning Leveson’s recommendations into law. The Tories claim that they are only doing so to demonstrate why they can’t work—but given the real divisions between the coalition partners the process is hard to control, and harder to predict. Cameron may be gambling that by the time of the next election in 2015 this will all be forgotten. But defying such a groundswell of public support for hacking victims also has its risks. Miliband is clearly gambling that newspaper proprietors no longer have the power the break politicians. Meanwhile Cameron’s former spokesman Andy Coulson, and his BFF Rebekah Brooks both appeared in court yesterday on charges of conspiring to bribe public officials. If either of them are convicted, or decide to cooperate with prosecutors, those commentators who claim that Leveson let the Murdochs off easy—yes, Michael Wolff, I mean you—may have to change their tune.
Rupert Murdoch is under fire again, for claiming the “Jewish-owned press” was “anti-Israel.” Check out Eric Alterman’s coverage here.