The Daily Mail‘s headline on Sunday informed us of “Leveson’s ‘threat to quit’ over meddling minister”. Readers only discovered in the middle of the piece that it was reporting what unnamed sources assumed Leveson implied, not what he had threatened. More bits of the story begin to fall apart as one reads it carefully; that is to its contradictory end.
It is worth reading how The Mail Mail online reported it:
Leveson’s ‘threat to quit’ over meddling Education Secretary’s claims the inquiry is having a ‘chilling’ effect on free speech
- Extraordinary ultimatum from the man leading probe into media standards
- Education Secretary Michael Gove’s speech to journalists warned of the dangers to our freedom of speech
- Lord Justice Leveson phoned Cabinet Secretary and demanded that Gove should be gagged
- Threatened to resign unless Cabinet Ministers were stopped from passing comments on his inquiry
The judge leading the probe into media behaviour threatened to quit after he was publicly criticised by a Cabinet Minister, senior Government sources claimed last night.
Lord Justice Leveson phoned Whitehall’s most senior mandarin and demanded that Education Secretary Michael Gove – who claimed the inquiry had created a ‘chilling atmosphere’ towards freedom of speech – should be gagged. In the angry call to Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, the judge claimed that if Ministers were not silenced, his inquiry, set up to investigate phone-hacking by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, would be rendered worthless.
He also summoned Mr Gove to give evidence to the inquiry to explain himself. An alarmed Sir Jeremy informed David Cameron of the judge’s ultimatum.
Government insiders say they were convinced Leveson was prepared to resign in protest unless Ministers stopped passing comment on his inquiry. ‘Our clear impression was that he was spitting tacks with Gove and was ready to resign unless the Minister was told to shut up,’ said one source.
The first thought the article provokes is that the judge phoned to complain about what Gove said at the inquiry and afterward to journalists last week. But no. The call was made in February in response to a speech Gove made at a Parliamentary Press Gallery lunch.
I’ve no idea what Leveson did or did not say on the call to the Cabinet Secretary. Downing Street has confirmed, we presume as a consequence, ministers were asked not to give a running commentary on the inquiry. That’s not unprecedented. It is usual practice for ministers not to pass comments on ongoing inquiries.
Rather than silencing Gove, Leveson summoned him to the inquiry. It stretches credibility to suppose that Leveson ever supposed that Gove would do anything but stick to his guns when he gave his evidence under oath in court on TV. It was telling that what Gove said forced Leveson to say, in a manner I thought petulant, that: “I do not need to be told about the importance of freedom of speech, I really don’t”. (It is, by the way the thing he says most often, and I fear that – actually – he does). Whatever that says about Leveson, it suggests Gove felt under no obligation or had been given no order to don a gag as part of any collective responsibility to a cabinet in which he plays a leading role.
In short, the Daily Mail story purposefully mangles facts (threatened) with third party hearsay, gossip and supposition (unamed sources said he gave the impression), and then buries the dateline deep in the piece: to hook a sensational story on the back of Gove’s public courtroom bust-up with Leveson as if it were cause and effect.
As it happens, I am big a fan of Michael’s Gove’s principled defence of freedom of speech. Gove has been courageous (we should note, however, there’s no rumour even that his job is on the line over this). But I am no fan of media bollocks.
So to cut through the bollocks, here’s a quick summary of the issues that I think are stressing Leveson’s nerves:
- Compulsion: how do you force media outlets to sign up to any code, especially internet bloggers/Facebook/Twitter users. And how do you enforce the remit?
- How do you cope when the genie is out of the bottle (the Max Mosley problem)
- How can we get swift, effective, cheap redress: how do we develop a law-backed redress for intrusion/defamation that is any better than what we have already (some say what we have should be abolished, let alone tightened or added to).
Leveson has touched on all these issues. But most people have said they are stumped about what to do, if anything, without threatening freedom of speech.
The libertarian argument tends to be that people should suck-it up. But some of the evidence such as that from the Scottish family Watson (their murdered daughter’s character was the subject of malicious media-generated assassination and their son later committed suicide surrounded by the press cuttings) makes that hard to accept. Then there’s the Dowlers, hacking a dead girl’s phone, and Max Mosley, the son of real Nazi, being accused of being a Nazi, evidence.
So far as I can see, everything else apart from accepting that bad things happen will involve some legal intrusion. Designing it is contentious. Even contemplating it is is unacceptable for those of us who advocate punching back with reason and “shame on you” derision.
This leaves us, however, with some uncomfortable outcomes (such as the Watson family’s treatment) that require exploration and perhaps, even, some new solutions. So the status quo might not be good enough. A call for a change of culture from within the media seems to be a reasonable demand. But the existence of the Leveson inquiry alone almost proves – besides proving there’s a new anti-tabloid circus in town – that it hasn’t worked in the past. There are plenty of remarks from Sir Brian (to pick one of three or four formal ways of naming Leveson) to suggest that he dreads writing a report which can be ignored either because it is the same old “last chance saloon” twaddle or overly-prescriptive and unsellable politically.
Let’s stay real, as the editor of Private Eye Ian Hislop told the inquiry: “Most of the heinous crimes that come up and have made such a splash at this inquiry are already illegal.”
Meanwhile, David Cameron said he wants a new regulator that has “teeth” and he has denounced the current system. But he has also put on the record that he has serious reservations about statutory regulation.
Ed Miliband went further than Cameron down the legal solution route. He advocated some form of statutory regulation of the press. As one media report noted, that made him the first major political leader to argue that the successor to the Press Complaints Commission should be recognised by law.
Rather at odds with a legal solution to the problem, Miliband also said he would not back statutory regulation of content of newspapers. His preference instead is for the successor to the PCC to be independent, and to offer “fast-track justice or redress for individuals”.
I’ll come back to Leveson in defence of media freedom as when things develop and we know exactly what it is he proposes that undermines it. Meanwhile, for those interested, I examined the PR and political implications here: