10:41 GMT, 30 November 2012
When David Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry, he can scarcely have imagined that it might lead to a struggle between Parliament and the Press, as well as a split in the Coalition.
How he must rue that decision — not least because the allegation by the Guardian newspaper that sparked the inquiry, namely that News of the World journalists had deleted voicemails of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, turned out to be untrue, as Lord Justice Leveson rightly points out in his massive report.
This is a monumental document in more ways than one. However he may have dressed it up, Lord Justice Leveson has proposed statutory supervision of the Press for the first time in more than 300 years.
Another planet: Lord Justice Leveson's ignorance is highlighted in his seeming lack of understanding of the nature of the uncensored internet
Hero: The Prime Minister is in effect giving newspapers time to come up with their own solution for tougher self-regulation so he can persuasively argue that statutory underpinning is no longer necessary
The true nature of his report can be judged by the favourable response of leading members of Hacked Off, including the orgy impresario Max Mosley, who have been campaigning merrily for statutory regulation.
How depressing that Ed Miliband should have embraced his Lordship’s findings with both hands. I can’t imagine the former Labour leader Michael Foot, a journalist and ex-editor, coming down against free speech in such a way.
As for the supposedly liberal Nick Clegg, his endorsement in his pathetic separate Commons speech of the report’s central recommendation of statutory underpinning was as contemptible as it was predictable, though he did express doubts about the role of Ofcom, as well as Lord Justice Leveson’s swingeing penalties for journalists who infringe data protection laws.
It is noteworthy that his report did not criticise Mr Cameron over his unwisely close relationship with the Murdoch executive Rebekah Brooks
Arguably not since the early 1640s — when Parliament issued an order to bring publishing under control by creating official censors — have so many politicians lined up to take a swipe at the free Press.
Almost no one denies that some newspapers have been guilty of excesses — though we should not forget that by far the most egregious offender, the News of the World, has been closed down, and that some of its journalists face serious criminal charges.
Down in the Dog And Duck, all this may be met with a combination of boredom and incredulity.
People have many more pressing things on their minds than the Leveson report. But we shouldn’t be in any doubt that many politicians want to introduce sweeping changes — while presenting them as relatively minor — to our constitutional arrangements.
Some of them, of course, are bruised by the newspaper revelations about MPs’ expenses shenanigans, and want to get back at their tormentors. Mr Miliband and Mr Clegg also see an opportunity to curb the power of the so-called Right-wing Press.
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Without doubt, the hero of the hour — and I say this having often criticised him — is Mr Cameron, who said in the Commons yesterday that he had ‘serious misgivings’ over the underpinning by law of the new proposed supervisory body.
He declared it would amount to crossing the Rubicon, and pointed out that once supervision by statute has been introduced, it can always be tightened and amended. I don’t doubt Mr Cameron wants to keep on good terms with the Right-wing Press, but there can be no doubting that his voice, yesterday seemingly in a minority, was the voice of liberalism.
He appears to have put himself on a collision course with his partner Nick Clegg. He also faces repeated political skirmishes with Mr Miliband, who intends to force an admittedly unbinding vote on the Leveson report as early as January, which according to present Commons arithmetic Mr Cameron is likely to lose.
He will have to deal not only with the massed ranks of Labour and the Lib Dems, but also with at least 70 of his own MPs who favour statutory regulation of some sort. Whether they will vote against him or abstain in the January vote is not clear.
The crucial point, though, is that in the end it is only the Government that can introduce binding legislation. Mr Cameron enjoys the support of leading and eloquent heavyweights in the Cabinet such as Michael Gove and William Hague. His is not, in fact, a lone voice.
Moreover, his clever proposal of all-party talks sounds reasonable and consensual, though bearing in mind Mr Miliband’s and Mr Clegg’s prejudices, they are unlikely to be fruitful.
The Prime Minister is in effect giving newspapers time to come up with their own solution for tougher self-regulation so he can persuasively argue that statutory underpinning is no longer necessary.
Let’s hope they can. Lord Justice Leveson’s massive tome would then be consigned to the shelves to gather dust.
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Not a lone voice: Mr Cameron enjoys the support of leading and eloquent heavyweights in the Cabinet such as Michael Gove (left) and William Hague
Clegg's endorsement in his pathetic separate Commons speech was as contemptible as it was predictable
I don’t doubt that he is a decent and diligent man, as well as a highly intelligent one. But he is also capable of great naivety. Let me point out just two further flaws in the report.
One is that neither during his Press conference (when he was too grand to answer questions) nor in his report itself does he show much awareness of the dire financial predicament of much of the Press. He seems hardly aware that many newspaper groups are slipping below the water line — or have slipped.
In this respect, he somewhat resembles a doctor who recommends a vigorous new exercise regime for a patient who is already bed-bound and is most unlikely ever to start running about again.
Any internet publication can easily set up shop in another country, where it will be immune from any form of statutory control
This lack of understanding connects to a deeper one. His Lordship appears not to understand the radically different nature of the internet, whose more irresponsible practitioners are immune to discipline or control of any kind.
An internet publication, whether respectable or disreputable, can easily set up shop in another country, where it will be immune from any form of statutory control. That is the future. In his startling innocence, Lord Justice Leveson is often describing the past.
One paragraph in his report highlights his ignorance. In discussing photographs of Prince Harry misbehaving, he suggests they would make more impact on children passing a newsstand than they would on the internet. What planet is he living on Few children concern themselves with newsstands. Tens of millions of them trawl the internet unsupervised.
And what they encounter there can be far more shocking, unbalanced, unfair and hurtful than anything likely to be published by national or regional newspapers in this country. In concentrating on the established Press, Lord Justice Leveson is often aiming at the wrong target.
Of course, newspapers are not above criticism. They should clean up their act, as they are willing to do, though I’m not sure they often cause ‘havoc’, as Lord Justice Leveson claims. But his proposals — I haven’t even mentioned his draconian suggestion that policemen should never communicate privately with journalists — would help to suffocate an already sickly industry.
Expect a lot of sound and fury over the coming months as the enemies of a free Press, many of them in Parliament, continue their destructive work. What I draw from yesterday’s proceedings, though, is that the Prime Minister, as well as Cabinet colleagues animated by principle, dearly want to protect it.