‘Proustian’ is right. As predicted, Lord Justice Leveson’s report, published at 1.30pm this afternoon, is no pamphlet, running to four volumes and over 2,000 pages. What follows, therefore, is an attempt to briefly summarise the findings of the report and its reception amongst journalists and politicians, to be followed (possibly tomorrow) by a longer analysis of its recommendations.
The report itself breaks down into three main areas, the first of which concerns the relationship between the press and the police. Leveson finds that, whilst there was no endemic or institutionalised corruption in the force as a whole, several poor decisions were made during the original phone-hacking investigation. In response, the judge makes a number of minor recommendations, including the introduction of the practice of recording the interaction between police officers and journalists on a regular basis.
The second section concerns the relationship between the press and politicians. On this, Leveson is more openly and robustly critical, decrying the closeness between journalists and politicians, but refrains from naming names, instead talking more abstractly about the development of a culture of inappropriate intimacy over the last 30 years. Here, the central remedy prescribed is greater levels of transparency, in respect of both professional lobbying and private interaction. Other findings include a lack of evidence for conspiracy theories regarding a ‘deal’ between David Cameron’s government and News International, mild criticism of Tony Blair’s New Labour government for introducing a greater emphasis on ‘spin’, and finding Jeremy Hunt, the erstwhile Secretary of State for Culture, innocent of any charges of bias in his quasi-judicial role in the BskyB takeover bid.
The third area of analysis is the most important and the most controversial: namely, a solution for the future regulation of the press. Lord Justice Leveson is clear that the inadequacy of the P.C.C., the apparent irrelevance of the editor’s code of conduct and the egregiousness of the journalistic crimes rule out reversion to the status quo. He is equally clear, however, about the dangers of ‘statutory regulation of the press’, i.e. of the government having direct involvement of what the papers print. What he proposes, therefore, is a compromise of sorts, whereby the ideal of self-regulation is maintained, but is overseen at an appropriate distance by a statutory backstop. Such a system would consist of a new, independent self-regulatory body, the make-up of which would expressly exclude serving editors or politicians. It would have the ability to impose fines of up to £1 million, and contain an arbitration system capable of enabling wronged parties to seek redress by way of both fines and prominent apologies at low costs. Crucially, its existence would be enshrined in law, validated by a statutory underpinning which would, according to Leveson, be an ‘essential’ component to ‘protect the freedom of the press, to reassure the public and validate the new body’.
Membership of this new body would be voluntary, but incentivised (with exclusion, in turn, disincentivised). Refuseniks would be subject to the normal costly libel proceedings of the courts, vulnerable to exemplary damages, and ultimate regulation by a more explicitly statutory body such as Ofcom; members, meanwhile, would have access to arbitration that is cheap, fast and fair.
In his statement shortly before the publication of the report, Lord Justice Leveson made it clear that alternative proposals from the press in recent days, notably from Lords Black and Hunt, were unacceptable. In his own words, the latter's effort ‘does not come close’ to what is required. Yet though he was at pains to point out that ‘this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press’, the reaction from both the media and the government suggest that it is this element of his recommendations which will prove most divisive in the coming weeks.
Scenes in the House of Commons this afternoon plainly illustrated this split. Whilst Ed Miliband, for the Opposition, and Nick Clegg, for the Liberal Democrats, supported implementing the judge’s proposals in full, the Prime Minister declared himself, while in favour of the broad thrust of what was recommended, as having ‘serious concerns and misgivings’ about the use of statute, highlighting its potential to ‘infringe free speech’. The leader of the Hacked Off campaign, Brian Cathcart, further emphasised the lack of consensus when he said of the PM’s statement that ‘his failure to accept the full recommendations of the report is unfortunate and regrettable’. It is abundantly clear, in short, that despite the veneer of compromise and consensus which initially dominated the release of the report this afternoon, the thorny, apparently insoluble issue of statute and the spectre of ‘state regulation’ will insure that this debate, as was predicted, is far from over.