A poll for the Sunday Times last weekend asked people whether they thought David Cameron was opposing ‘new laws’ to underpin press regulation (a) ‘as a matter of principle‘ or (b) because ‘he does not wish to jeopardise his relationship with newspaper owners and editors’.
Unsurprisingly, 56 per cent chose the second option, against 24 per cent for the first – and equally unsurprisingly the Sunday Times did not find room in the paper to inform its readers of this fact.
Yesterday David Cameron continued to nurture his warm relationship with those editors at a ‘good meeting’ in number 10. There was talk afterwards of him being firm with them – that was certainly his posture for the cameras – and they came out saying how determined they are to set up a new, independent, tough regulator. They’ll report back within days.
This was not just a disgraceful spectacle. It is also a stitch-up in which – as on six previous occasions over 70 years – the British public will be the losers.
It is disgraceful because these editors and proprietors (with but a few honourable exceptions) are guilty parties. They stand convicted by Lord Justice Leveson of fostering and sustaining a culture of recklessness, of wholesale disregard for ethical standards, of violation of human rights, of casual disregard for accuracy, of wilful and self-serving mismanagement, of deafness to complaint and of ‘wreaking havoc’ in the lives of blameless, ordinary people.
The prime minister ought to have said he would not see them until they had apologised to the public, prominently, in print and online for all of this. This was the very least, he should have told them, that they owed to the British public. For remember, these are the same editors who, if such failings happened in any other walk of life, would be demanding that heads roll and surviving executives grovel. In their own case, it seems, they aren’t punished but rewarded with morning coffee in Downing Street.
Shameless and shocking as this is, the stitch-up is more important.
Mr Cameron, who is on record beyond all doubt as a bosom friend to News International, the chief offender, has not only handed over to these editors the sole responsibility for designing a new self-regulator, but he has stripped out the one and only element of the Leveson Report that would protect the public from them and their successors in future.
Bear in mind the judge had already been remarkably kind to them. His report does not recommend that they be compelled to join the new self-regulator: instead it uses carrots and sticks. So it’s voluntary, and their ludicrous squealing about ‘licensing‘ is silenced.
His report does not suggest a statutory right of reply for readers, which is the norm in the European Union.
So the papers got off extremely lightly. But we should never underestimate their greed. So far as they are concerned, nothing could be light enough.
Their new, voluntary self-regulator must be free from even the light-touch external inspection that Lord Justice Leveson proposes, and Cameron is determined to give them that as well. Because of a ‘principle’ he seems to have dreamt up while shaving last Thursday morning, he doesn’t feel it is right to legislate to protect the public.
So they will be spared the proposed three-yearly inspections by an independent body supported by law – inspections which are ‘essential’, as the judge put it, to ensure that their new regulator does not quickly slip into the disgraceful uselessness of the old Press Complaints Commission.
So sit back and watch as, for the seventh time in 70 years, the guilty men (and they are still almost all men) define the terms of their own regulation without any engagement with or role for the ordinary journalists represented by the National Union of Journalists, without engaging directly with any of the victims of their past cruelty and wrongdoing, and without any public consultation.
To whom are they answerable in all this? Only to David Cameron, the man who swapped intimate texts with Rebekah Brooks and gave a job to Andy Coulson. The man who claims to believe he believes it is wrong for politicians to have even the slightest role in regulating the press.
Before the Leveson Inquiry began I wrote that the hacking scandal made Britain look like Berlusconi’s Italy, albeit without the prostitutes. I never thought that at the end of the process it would look even more like that, but it does.