How good is your memory? Does it stretch back to 2013? Or perhaps 2011? Right now, David Cameron is hoping it doesn’t. In those years he made a lot of promises that are no longer convenient for him, so he would prefer you forgot them.
Almost all our national papers, from the Mirror to the Telegraph, also want you to forget. So far as they can, they avoid mentioning the Prime Minister’s promises even when opposition parties raise them in Parliament. (Which you may think is an odd way for journalists to behave.)
That being the case, unless we make an effort of memory on our own account the whole matter will simply vanish. David Cameron and the big newspapers will get what they want and whatever happened in 2011-13 might just as well not have happened.
So let’s remind ourselves.
On 4 July 2011 the Guardian revealed that reporters for Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World hacked the voicemail messages of murdered teenager Milly Dowler even as police were desperately searching for her – and with that news a dam of scandal burst.
Years of denials by Murdoch’s executives were shown to be lies, while the police were seen both to have failed to investigate hacking properly and to have been in a too-cosy relationship with Murdoch’s people.
David Cameron himself was compromised. He was close to Murdoch and very close to his UK newspaper chief Rebekah Brooks, while Andy Coulson, a former editor of theNews of the World, was running media operations inside 10 Downing Street.
A matrix of relationships had been exposed, between press, politicians and police, that looked more like something out of Vladimir Putin’s Russia than the workings of a modern democracy. The public rightly wondered who, in all of this, was really running Britain.
Cameron had his back to the wall. What could he do? Someone told him, or perhaps his own conscience did, to do the right thing. And this is where the inconvenient promises began.
A stream of promises
He said things like this: ‘The relationship between politicians and the media must change.‘ And this: ‘What is absolutely vital is that we put in place a regulatory system that they [the victims of press abuses] can see has got real teeth.’
He said them in public, and even in Parliament, where prime ministerial promises are supposed to carry special weight. Some of them he repeated under oath at the Leveson Inquiry. It was clear that he really, really wanted us to believe him.
And he did not stop at generalities. He signed a detailed, formal, cross-party agree-ment with the Liberal Democrats and Labour, committing himself and his party to the Royal Charter on press regulation and to the necessary supporting legislation.
He promised Parliament: ‘We will also change the rules on costs in civil claims against publishers so that there is a strong incentive to come inside the regulator, with its independent arbitration system.’
He promised that the inquiry into what went wrong would come in two parts, with five of the seven elements of its remit reserved for Part 2, which would follow any criminal prosecutions. He later told Parliament: ‘We remain committed to the inquiry as it was first established.’ And he repeated: ‘It is right that it [Part 2] should go ahead, and that is fully our intention.’
And it is difficult to convey, on top of this, just how ardently he proclaimed himself, in every available forum, to be the loyal friend, ally and defender of the victims of press abuse. Just one example: ‘We must at all times keep the real victims at the front and centre of this debate.’
Every one of these promises David Cameron now wants to break, which is why he hopes you have forgotten them. And the corporate press, which believes it stands to benefit, is doing its best to help with this induced amnesia.
How does he hope to get away with it? He is relying on small print.
Deep in the Crime and Courts Act 2013 – Section 40 of which provides the ‘real teeth’ in the Royal Charter regulatory arrangements that Cameron promised – there is a clause relating to ‘commencement’. It says that Section 40 becomes active when the Culture Secretary signs a legal document.
Never mind that this commencement clause was included – as such clauses often are in Acts – merely to allow time for necessary administrative arrangements. The culture secretary, John Whittingdale, with Cameron’s encouragement, is now exploiting it as a licence to sit on the matter.
He won’t actually say that he has decided not to commence, because he knows that would be subject to legal challenge. Nor is he consulting, because that would imply a process with a structure and an end. Instead he has deliberately placed himself in a state of indecision which he clearly would like to be permanent.
And while he remains in that state the entire Leveson project, once so unequivocally endorsed by David Cameron, remains toothless. Effective, independent press self-regulation cannot happen. The mechanisms created under the Royal Charter simply stand idle.
Now ask yourself, whom does that suit? Yes, most of all it suits the corporate press, which deeply fears any kind of regulation that might make it more honest and fair. And, as in the days before we found out about Milly Dowler’s phone, what suits the press appears to suit David Cameron.
It also suits the Culture Secretary, who, by neither implementing nor repealing the law Parliament has passed, retains a power to bring it into effect at a later date if he chooses – exactly the sort of discretionary executive power over the free press that everyone at Leveson agreed no minister should ever have.
Leveson Part 2
And that’s not the only small print he is exploiting. Back when Cameron was making his promises, it appeared that Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry would follow the end of the last criminal case as surely as day follows night.
Recently, however, something changed, and Conservative ministers now say that after the last trial a decision will have to be taken on whether to proceed with Part 2. Here again their true aim is not to make a decision (which might be challenged) but to avoid one.
Thus ministers won’t say which trials have to end before they make their decision, and they are not clear about how soon after the end of those trials they will make it. And the longer this indecision continues, so far as they are concerned, the better – but make no mistake, the firm intention concealed in all this waffly vagueness is to break Cameron’s promise on Part 2.
The result would be to let those in the press industry and the police who were responsible for law-breaking and corruption, or complicit in covering it up, off the hook.
We have had trials in which public officials were jailed for receiving bribes while journalists who admitted paying them walked free. We have had trials in which senior executives were acquitted after blaming subordinates and trials in which the subordinates escaped conviction after blaming bosses.
What we have not had is a clear picture of who did what and why.
A few from the press, almost all of them foot-soldiers, have been convicted, but the people who made the key decisions have never been held to account. And remember, we now know that phone hacking was at least as rife in the Mirror group as it was in the Murdoch press.
So who benefits if there is no Leveson Part 2? The lawbreakers in the press do. And David Cameron apparently wants that.
A special problem
When things go wrong in a democracy we look to our politicians to fix them. And if they fail to do so, or if they make promises and then break them, we look to our news media to point it out and call them to account.
Here in democratic Britain, however, we have a special problem. The news media, or more precisely the powerful corporate press, have gone wrong, and not for the first time they are in a conspiracy with the politicians and against the public to ensure that the problem is not fixed.
That conspiracy will only succeed if we are all obliging enough to forget Cameron’s promises. So please don’t. Instead, please support Hacked Off’s ‘No Broken Promises’ campaign here.
This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post and is reproduced with the permission of the author.