The Cameron-Leveson dialogue: worth close scrutiny – Brian Cathcart

1 07 2012

What is the future of press regulation in this country? The two men with the greatest power to decide that are David Cameron and Lord Justice Leveson, and when the prime minister gave evidence to Leveson’s inquiry on June 14 they ended the session with a discussion on that very point.

It lasted about 15 minutes and it bears close scrutiny. We reproduce it below.

Among points worthy of note is Cameron’s apparent enthusiasm for the regulation proposals put forward by the industry itself, and his apparent reluctance to engage with other possibilities even when prodded by the judge. He also appears to equate ‘statutory regulation’ with a loss of freedom, though he doesn’t explain why that needs to be the case. And he repeats another industry line about the risk of regulation getting tied up in expensive legal strings.

Missing from Cameron’s testimony here, so far as I can see, is any bold affirmation of the Leveson process, and any brave promise to give Leveson’s report the fairest possible hearing and to maintain all-party support for action if possible. He nods in those directions, but only when prompted.

Leveson, meanwhile, is a sceptic about the industry’s regulation proposals on a number of grounds, and is also keen to widen Cameron’s test of success from satisfying the Dowlers and McCanns to something more general.

All in all, it is an exchange which encourages the belief that Cameron would be happy to see the press industry get the regulatory system it wants (which happens to be one of which it retains ownership), and that he has been well briefed on their supporting arguments. It is also clear that Lord Justice Leveson has not been convinced by that system or those arguments, and that he is likely to propose something different.

This raises big questions about what happens in the autumn when Leveson reports. Will Cameron back Leveson, even if his proposal involves some enabling legislation? Or will he try to sell the industry’s solution instead? If the latter, how would he make that case?

If you missed the exchange, here it is. See what you think.

DAVID CAMERON: The test of a regulatory system is not, does that make the politicians happier? The test of the system is: is it going to provide proper protection to ordinary families who, through no fault of their own, get caught up in these media maelstroms and get completely mistreated? And the evidence of the Dowler family and the evidence of the McCann family is incredibly powerful in that regard. I will never forget meeting with the Dowler family in Downing Street to run through the terms of this Inquiry with them and to hear what they had been through and how it had redoubled, trebled the pain and agony they’d been through over losing Milly. I’ll never forget that, and that’s the test of all this. It’s not: do the politicians or the press feel happy with what we get? It’s: are we really protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves by this process. That’s what the test is.

ROBERT JAY: On 6 July of last year you explained to Parliament that in your view the PCC had failed. Does it follow from that that you believe that self-regulation has failed?

CAMERON: Not necessarily. I mean, I — what matters is that the system that’s put in place passes a series of tests, in my view. It must be independent and be seen to be independent. It has to involve all of the newspapers. It can’t be opted out of. It has to have real teeth in terms of penalties that, you know, where mistakes are made and bad practice happens, there are real penalties as a result. It has to have an ability to get out and find out what happened rather than just have sort of self-reported problems. If those things can be — and it has to have the confidence of the public and it has to stop, as I said, the scandals that we’ve seen. If it can do those things, that’s the test. Now, I totally understand why the press and people who, like me, care about a free press, have a real concern about sort of full-on statutory regulation. I worked in television where we had statutory regulation. It’s a different beast, because television, because of its power, because of the limited amount of bandwidth, you have to have, in my view, regulation for impartiality, and that requires statutory backing, which is what we have. Newspapers are different, and we have to respect that and understand that, so if we can make a self-regulatory system work that is genuinely independent and the “self” sort of disappears, that would be fantastic, but what matters is the outcome rather than the title, as it were. I’ve looked carefully at what David Hunt is suggesting. I think he has some very good ideas there. I think they have to be rigorously tested as to whether they can deliver independence, penalties, compulsion, toughness, public confidence and all the rest of it. And I think that’s — I’m sorry to have given you this hot potato, but I think that’s the test.

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON: I don’t think you sound sorry about doing that at all, actually. But there are some contradictions in there, because if it has to involve everyone, and it has to involve everyone –

CAMERON: Yes, absolutely.

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON: — if it has, then it’s quite difficult to see how you can have a system that doesn’t have some sort of framework because any system that is entirely self-regulatory, use of the word “self” means opting in and opting out.

CAMERON: I think — it can’t be self-regulation, it has to be independent regulation.

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON: Agreed.

CAMERON: The question is: does it need statutory backing or not? And obviously, in a free society, it would be much better if we could deliver it without statute, but that’s the difficult thing we have to examine. But it must be — as I say, I think the key — the interim stage is how you get there. What we actually have to deliver is that it is compulsory and has all those things that I said, and I think that’s the challenge that you’ve laid down, quite rightly, to David Hunt and others: show me how you can satisfy those terms.

LEVESON: Well, that’s indeed the point, and one could say that one of the concerns — and I don’t know how the idea has developed in the months since Lord Hunt and Lord Black outlined it to the Inquiry, but a contract with a long notice period has its own problems because it’s not necessarily compulsory, you don’t have to sign it, and signing it under the umbrella of this Inquiry because of the threat that something worse will happen doesn’t look at though it’s a very good start for a system. I’m not ruling on it, I’m not deciding it, but I’m merely identifying some concerns. Do you feel that –

CAMERON: I share those concerns, I completely — and I don’t want to be categoric, because I want — this is a challenge that’s been laid down to this government. It’s not — you know, we have all sorts of challenges we want to meet, but this, I recognise, it’s our duty to sort out this set of relationships that have gone wrong. We want to do that. So I don’t want to be too categoric today because I want to throw in my ideas and see your result and see if with other political party leaders we can deliver a proper change that will serve the country well. That’s the aim of all this.

LEVESON: Absolutely. To that extent I hope that you, like I, feel encouraged by Sir John Major making the political point that without a consensus this is very difficult.

CAMERON: Yes.

LEVESON: Then Mr Miliband coming along and Mr Clegg coming along — I appreciate you’re in Coalition with him.

CAMERON: Yes. Doesn’t always mean we agree, but …

LEVESON: So I hope that you can agree with the same broad need for consensus –

CAMERON: Yes.

LEVESON: — and a principled response in the way they identified it.

CAMERON: I agree with every word of that, and it was particularly important that when I set up — established this Inquiry, we sought political consensus on its terms of reference. I think that consensus is very important, and I thought John Major’s evidence about what went wrong with the Calcutt process and the outcome of that in not being able to deliver the changes was instructive, and we have to do better.

JAY: Mr Cameron, you’ve identified certain essential attributes of the desirable system: independence, all newspapers required to participate, real teeth, et cetera. I think we’re also agreed it’s also an essential attribute that government should not be permitted to interfere in matters of content, contrast the position of broadcasters; is that right?

CAMERON: Correct.

JAY: But if any statute specifically prevented government from interfering in matters of content and, moreover, possessed a number of constitutional safeguards which underscored that, would there be any objection in principle to having such a statutory underpinning?

CAMERON: I think the — as I say, I don’t want to commit myself too deeply. I think as we go at this, we have to understand the real concern there is about statutory regulation. That doesn’t mean you rule it out, but it means try and make everything that can be independent work before you reach for that lever. But, of course, if you had to undertake it, the more undertakings, the more safeguards would obviously be better. That would be my view.

LEVESON: I think what Mr Jay is really getting to is not suggesting any form of statutory regulation, but perhaps a system whereby what was required was described by a statute which similarly provided the same constitutional independence for the press that section 3(1) of the Constitution Reform Act provides the judiciary, and if I occasionally peddle that particular provision it’s because it was an idea I had some months ago.

JAY: Right.

LEVESON: Which provides the structure onto which a system that is entirely independent of government, of politicians and carries with it perhaps not serving editors but those who have got the experience of the industry as well as independent members would satisfy the criteria which we’ve been discussing.

CAMERON: Well, obviously — not obviously, it’s not obvious, none of this is obvious. I suppose it could. I just come back to the point, you know, what are we trying to deliver here? We want to know that if an individual suffered press intrusion, has an inaccurate article written about them, has their life turned around in some way, all these things that have happened, that it really is worth their while going to this regulator, however established, and they know they’re going to get a front page apology, they’re going to get the newspaper brought to book. That’s what doesn’t happen at the moment. People just feel: I don’t have that ability. So what happens is the legal remedies — this was the problem I think with the Calcutt Act — the legal remedies seem to be there for the wealthy, that they could get redress, they could take out a libel action, hire an expensive lawyer and the rest of it. We want a system that’s simple, understandable, that ordinary people can use to get redress. That’s the key to it, and of course if you do something statutory you can put in rights and points, but as you were saying, I can sort of see that we might end up in a lot of judicial review cases and what have you rather than what we really want to see, which is rapid, swift action for proper redress –

LEVESON: I am absolutely opposed to trying to create a system that generates more work for lawyers.

CAMERON: Right. That’s a great relief.

LEVESON: You can trust me on that. And I entirely agree that swift redress is extremely important. Of course, that redress must be capable of being enforced.

CAMERON: Yes. Yes. You can’t opt out of it. You can’t have a situation now where people don’t go to the PCC because they feel they’re going to have to relive the nightmare all over again and probably not get a reasonable outcome at the end of it. But I think this is the space we’re in. How do we deliver that? Is it possible to do it without statutory backing, with statutory backing, with statutory backing with guarantees? That’s I’m afraid the –

LEVESON: It’s quite difficult to see how it can be dealt with purely contractually, because contracts by definition can be stepped away from.

CAMERON: We’ve set — you’ve set I think David Hunt the challenge.

LEVESON: Yes, well –

CAMERON: And let’s see what he comes back with.

LEVESON: I’m not ruling it out.

CAMERON: No.

LEVESON: I’m not ruling any possible solution out. I made it abundantly clear to the editors and to Lord Black and Lord Hunt that it is the problem of the press just as much as it’s my problem, but their solution has to work for me.

CAMERON: Yes.

LEVESON: And what you essentially have identified in slightly different words, but with exactly the same fervour, are the criteria that make it work for me, and if it doesn’t satisfy the type of requirements that you’ve just spoken of, then it doesn’t work for me, whatever.

CAMERON: It doesn’t work for me either. But the point is it doesn’t work for the Dowlers, or the McCanns. That’s the test.

LEVESON: I understand.

CAMERON: I’m sorry I don’t have the whole answer, but I think the question you’ve challenged the industry with is the right one and we have to see: is there some way of saying, “If you’re not part of this, you’re not in the lobby, you don’t get any information from government, you don’t get this or that”, and is there a way of making it that it becomes effectively compulsory? Because I totally accept we can’t say it’s the last-chance saloon all over again. You know, we’ve done that.

LEVESON: It’s quite difficult to see how the government can withdraw favours, as it were, like the lobby, unless you tell me differently.

CAMERON: Well, I’m just, you know, trying to think of are there ways of encouraging a system that everyone takes part in, but short of this quite understandable neuralgia people have about statutory regulation when we’re talking about a free press. So that’s the challenge. I don’t think I have the answer, but David Hunt knows what the question is and if he can’t convince you or the political leaders who all know we have to sort this out, then that’s going to be the problem, but that’s the challenge.

JAY: Mr Gove expressed some views in February of this year about the chilling effect of this Inquiry on freedom of speech and the dangers of regulation. Are those views which you associate yourself with or not?

CAMERON: Well, we have a slightly different view. I mean, Michael comes from a print press background. He was news editor of the Times. I think he’s right to make the point there is a danger if we don’t get this right, that you could have a chilling effect. We don’t want that. But we all put our points in our own way.

JAY: Okay. As for the future of press regulation, you’ve adumbrated your ideas. Is there anything else you would like to add to that, Mr Cameron?

CAMERON: I think that is — I think we’ve discussed the overall challenge and that’s what we need to meet, and we should, as I say again, bear in mind who we’re doing this for, why we’re here in the first place, and that’s the real test. If the families like the Dowlers feel this has really changed the way they would have been treated, we would have done our job properly.

JAY: Is there any aspect of your evidence which you feel we haven’t covered? Obviously you’ve supplied detailed evidence in writing. I haven’t gone to every single paragraph, but if you think there’s a salient omission, we will address it now.

CAMERON: No, I think we’ve covered the waterfront.

LEVESON: Could I suggest that it’s not just the Dowlers, but really encompasses all those whose privacy or rights have been intruded upon without any sufficient public interest. Would that be fair?

CAMERON: I agree with that, but I think those of us who put ourselves in the public eye — that doesn’t mean you give up all your rights to privacy, of course it doesn’t, but I think it is different, and politicians have to accept a greater level of questioning and all of that, and that’s why I think focusing on the regulatory system is better than focusing on privacy laws or other legal remedies, which can tend to favour the powerful rather than people who just get caught up in this storm, and it completely changes their lives.

LEVESON: On the basis that they don’t have the resources or the equipment to take on the press.

CAMERON: Yes.

LEVESON: It’s actually why I used the phrase “sufficient public interest”, because you’ll be the first to recognise that being in public life, the threshold for what might be an invasion of privacy for somebody who isn’t a politician is going to be different for somebody who is.

CAMERON: Yes.

LEVESON: Or somebody who has celebrity status for some other reason. There is still a threshold. It isn’t zero, but it’s a different threshold.

CAMERON: Totally. They could probably safely leave their child in the pub and not have the same attention focused on them, which I don’t complain about at all, I think a perfectly legitimate point has been made.

LEVESON: Well, it was rather interesting, the number of those in the newsrooms who reported it who said, “Well, actually that happened to me”, or “I did it to my child”.

CAMERON: I heard a number of stories from Members of Parliament who had been left in motorway service stations, outside butchers’ shops, and it helped me understand some of my colleagues a lot better.

LEVESON: I suppose that’s a very convenient place to leave it. Prime Minister, you’ve mentioned that there were some ideas that you wanted to pass to me. I’d be very interested in seeing them, and indeed any thoughts that you might have that you want to convey. I would welcome them, not merely to play back your thoughts, but because it’s obviously going to be easier if I have had the chance to consider the possible traps that from my background I might not see, which you, from your different perspective, might well appreciate.

CAMERON: Okay, I will certainly do that. Thank you.

Brian Cathcart is a founder of Hacked Off and teaches journalism at Kingston University London. He tweets at @BrianCathcart

This post originally appeared on the Hacked Off blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks


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