Categories: Media issues / Richard D North

30 November 2012


Guest post: RDN says Leveson wasn’t liberal

By Richard D North:

So far I am with David Cameron and find support in the majority of each of the responses by almost all the intelligent right and by some boldly liberal others including Max Hastings, David Aaronovitch, Ian Hislop, Liberty, Camilla Cavendish, Peter Lilley, John Whittingdale, Chris Blackhurst, Fraser Nelson. Their shared bottom line is to keep the state out of it: that one wants the least, smartest regulation possible.

The broadly and boldly liberal (as in freedom-loving) view of Leveson seems to be that he has reached too soon for state intervention. Liberals are looking for one or more silver bullets. Beefed-up voluntary regulation looks the right way to go. Only serious failure of a new such (broadly “Leveson compliant”) system should require anything which amounts to state licensing of the press.

Here are one or two thoughts of my own:

The key problems with the Leveson solution are that (1) it seeks to regulate the whole press as though it weren’t just the tabloid vulgarians who were at fault; (2) its “whole print journalism industry” approach misses the main modern problem which will be online and (3) its statutory backup is so light that though it intrudes the state into the matter it tells us nothing about what the state would do in the face of continued bad behaviour by the press.

Hacking, corruption of public office (police leaks, etc), and some harassment can be dealt with by existing or specific new criminal laws. Many other failings, especially kow-towing to the press by politicians, can be dealt with by changes of culture. The existence of a loud “victim-compliant” Hacked-off movement is a powerful new element in old-press if not new media regulation. (Isn’t Hacked-off as good a “validator” as Ofcom could devise?)

There remains the problem of victim redress. Any non-statutory system will have to pass the interlocking Watson and the Mosley tests. (That is: would the Watsons have been spared or compensated for the kind of coverage their dead daughter received? And could we be sure that the Max Mosley S & M story would not have surfaced at all – the “genie out of the bottle” dimension?)

We don’t know if the McAlpine solution will tame the new media. Max Mosley so far seems to think Leveson doesn’t tame rich putative libellers. (Thank goodness for rich, stroppy men.)

One serious problem with Leveson is that it supposes that one can write a law which makes the cost of libel cases potentially much higher if one doesn’t register and get validated by the state. That is a carrot to an organisation accepting state licence and seeking convenience with or without principle but it is a stick (and maybe a serious deterrent) to those who resist state licensing, and especially to those who resist registering on principle (which will often be small outfits (such as, maybe, Private Eye, The Spectator)).

One interesting wrinkle is that Leveson suggests that Ofcom could be a useful regulator: this is to bring the press under the body which regulates the absurdity which is broadcast impartiality. Instead of making the broadcasters more like the press, which would be desirable, this looks a little like making the press more like the broadcasters, which is eerie.

I write all this as someone who watched a lot of Leveson live and had high hopes for him, but hasn’t yet read a word of his report. So far, from reports of his report, I have an impression of a man short of street smarts and trapped by the seeming logic of the failure of all previous Great and Good efforts at press reform. There remains the possibility that it is a much more persuasive report than has so far been suggested.

2 responses to “Guest post: RDN says Leveson wasn’t liberal”

  1. Paul Seaman says:

    Richard, I shall write something next week stating why I’m against any state interference full stop. Meanwhile I note that my profession has mostly and uncritically welcomed Leveson’s report; they seem not to fear/sense that after dealing with hacks the focus will turn to flacks.

  2. Edward Boggis-Rolfe says:

    The term ‘war on terror’ gave free licence to dictatorships to terrorise their own dissidents.
    What message does a country that is proudly free give to others if it legislates quickly and badly on its own press?
    The journalists who did wrong are being tried on existing laws that should have been applied a long time ago.
    The press complaints was rotten to the core, a truly independent body with teeth must be set up quickly and proven to properly police breaches of codes of conduct. It must be seen to enforce that tribunals are proportionate, rapid and cheap, before politicians force in rapid and clumsy legislation.
    Having said that, if the other separate pillars of good governance: the executive, the legislature, and the courts are all subject to laws of the land, and if this body does not work as hoped then surely journalists should not be surprised that it happens to them?