A ‘dossier’ signaling an imminent ‘coup’ from that ‘incestuous […] quasi-masonic nexus’, the ‘Left’s old boy network’; it could only really be one UK newspaper, couldn’t it. Never one for sending its cavalry round the flank, today’s Daily Mail charges headlong into the boggy mire of the Leveson battlefield, bayonets fixed and ready for a scrap. Over the course of its front page, five subsequent double-page spreads and its main leader column, the paper marshals a typically uncompromising thesis of corruption, cronyism and general left-wing Establishment conspiracy which, it fears, threatens to inveigle the otherwise irreproachable Lord Leveson’s august inquiry down the path of unrighteousness, imperiling freedom of the press and the world as we know it. Or something like that.
It’s easy to mock the tenor of the Mail’s thundering style: Roy Greenslade at the Guardian speaks for many when he dismisses the story as the deranged rantings of an paper noted for its long-standing dissent vis a vis Leveson. ‘I really think it's time for the men in white coats to visit its Kensington offices as soon as possible’, he begins, labeling its ‘exclusive’ a ‘farrago of distortion with added vilification’. The New Statesman also has some fun, gleefully chronicling the more hyperbolic, irrelevant and/or misleading aspects of what they label a 'hatchet job'.
As so often with reporting on the Leveson inquiry, though, the undercurrent of political activism, hidden agendas and self-referential complexity can often obscure the truth of the matter. ‘Politics has been threaded through all this the way fat marbles good beef’, the parliamentary sketchwriter Quentin Letts memorably remarked; it is certainly unsurprising to see the Guardian line up against the Mail, and fun though the vituperative arts are, they don’t provide much in the way of resolution. But cut through the politics of the Mail’s tenuous grandstanding, and the Guardian’s knee-jerk moralizing, and there is a sense that the Mail’s story might harbor something worth examining after all.
Looked at objectively, there is no doubt that the Mail significantly compromises itself by succumbing to an overarching notion of conspiracy. Without covering the ins and outs of the sprawling network of intrigue that they claim to identify (the full story is on the website), the premise centers around a member of the six-man team appointed to be assessors to Lord Leveson, Sir David Bell, whose connections to various other charitable and campaigning groups lobbying for statutory regulation of the press are portrayed as symptomatic of a wider collusion between the inquiry and leftist interest groups agitating for media censorship. Regrettably, the pages and pages of ‘evidence’ tend to sacrifice accuracy on the alter of conspiracy, since much is overplayed (even if he was a trustee of the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, it wasn’t Bell’s fault that Alistair McAlpine was wrongly accused of being a paedophile), and some is downright misleading (it is widely acknowledged that the News of the World hacked into Milly Dowler’s phone, and the ensuing controversy over the actual deletion of voicemails surely gives no license for the Mail to brand it ‘untrue’).
This is a shame, since were the case couched in less apocalyptic terms, there is a serious argument to be made. As even Greenslade admits, ‘the Mail does raise some questions about Bell that certainly do deserve attention’. His colleague at the Guardian Michael White agrees (‘Daily Mail ‘dossier’ isn’t all dross’), as does Andrew Gilligan at the Telegraph who covered parts of the same story in the early part of last year (‘David Bell: there is a real story here’). It does seem a bit off, for instance, that funding for the Media Standards Trust, which Sir David chaired until recently and which spawned the campaign group Hacked Off, should be funded by a charitable trust of which he himself is a trustee; or that donations to Hacked Off were held in a bank account ‘managed by the Media Standards Trust’ itself. It is interesting, moreover, to note the considerable activities of Bell as trustee and former chairman of the leadership training organization ‘Common Purpose’, which was reprimanded by the Information Commissioner in 2009 for six probable breaches of the Data Protection Act and whose active left-liberal bias one doesn’t have to be Miss Marple to discern.
Now, there is nothing here that is illegal, and much that isn’t even particularly reprehensible. But there is certainly a pattern, a network of prominent individuals and organizations, which gives a kernel of credibility to the Mail’s contention that those involved in the upper echelons of the Leveson inquiry ‘are drawn from a narrow and powerful section of the liberal Establishment that has come into increasing conflict with much of Britain's newspaper industry.’ It is something of a pity, therefore, that the paper couldn’t resist sullying a decent argument without descending into a general rant about anything from lefty police commissioners to ancient scandals about Labour MPs caught in flagrante. Michael White is surely correct when he states that ‘anti-establishment bodies should be as much fair game for accountability as those of the old establishment, which have been targeted by reformers for decades’.