So, the long-awaited Leveson report was finally published this week. I haven’t read all of it (it’s over 2,000 pages and runs to four volumes!), but I have at least skimmed it, which is more than can be said for a lot of those commenting on it (including some leading politicians, it seems). My initial impressions are that Lord Justice Leveson has accurately identified the main problems with the British newspaper industry, but has reached the wrong conclusions as to what to do about it.
Firstly, it has to be said that the tabloid newspapers of the UK have, by and large, operated in an atmosphere of callous disregard for both morality and the law. And this has been apparent across the board. The News of the World may have triggered the investigation when it was caught out accessing private voicemails (so-called “phone hacking”, although it isn’t really hacking at all in the sense that would be used in the computer industry), but there is no doubt whatsoever that it was not alone. In fact, had other proprietors had the same response as Rupert Murdoch, we would barely have a national tabloid left. The Leveson report gives explicit examples of wrongdoing across a whole range of titles. The Daily Mail and the Daily Express repeatedly and deliberately print material they know to be false – that is, they are habitual liars – and the Daily Mirror, under the leadership of Piers Morgan, made extensive use of material they knew to be sourced by phone hacking. The Sun mounted a deliberate smear campaign against prominent campaigners against page 3. There simply is no tabloid newspaper which can claim to be clean. And, although it wasn’t part of Leveson’s remit, we shouldn’t forget that the so-called “quality” papers have had their issues too – Independent columnist Johann Hari being exposed as a liar and plagiarist is just one example, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that one of the key accusations originally made by The Guardian against the News of the World – that they deleted voicemails on Milly Dowler’s phone – turned out to be false.
So, what’s the solution? More regulation? I’m not convinced. Again, I entirely agree with Lord Leveson that the previous system of self-regulation has been a dismal failure. Not only has it been toothless in the face of the misdeeds I’ve already mentioned, but it is simply ignore by the Express’s proprietor – former porn baron Richard Desmond – on the basis that he doesn’t want to be part of it at all. But I still don’t think we need a statutory regulatory body.
Part of the reason for that is that I am, at heart, a liberal, with a small “l”. That is, I don’t think the government should be seeking to control and regulate things unless it can be shown beyond reasonable doubt that regulation is necessary. And I’m also a conservative, with both a large and small “c”. I believe that it is important to protect and defend our society, and I am a member of the Conservative party, a Conservative councillor and a member of my constituency’s executive committee. I mention that because I don’t want anyone to be in doubt as to where I’m coming from, politically. I agree with David Cameron when he says that regulating the press is a rubicon that we should not lightly cross. I am not saying that because I have any particular affinity for the so-called “right wing” tabloid media. I would not shed a tear for the Daily Mail and Daily Express if they were to close down. As a centre-right politician, I don’t particularly value their support. If anything, their lack of concern for the truth is positively damaging to my cause. Political neutrals – floating voters – the people we particularly need to appeal to – look at papers such as the Mail and think that they are representative of right-wing thinking. And all that will do is put them off.
But I digress. There’s a whole lot wrong with the tabloid media, and as far as I’m concerned (and as far as Lord Leveson is concerned, too) the whole lot of them are pretty much as bad as each other. But I don’t want statutory regulation, for two main reasons.
The first reason is that statutory regulation isn’t going to add anything to our ability to deal with things like phone hacking. This is already illegal, as Andy Coulson, Rebekah Brooks and Piers Morgan are likely to discover. A regulator isn’t going to be any better than the police at dealing with lawbreaking by media organisations. If anything, it may even make it harder to deal with, as there will then be a natural tendency for the police to think that it’s a matter for the regulator rather than something which requires their own effort. What we need here are not new laws, but better enforcement of existing laws.
The second reason is that the media are, to a very great extent, what people want them to be. The reason that the Mail and the Express get away with printing lies is the same reason that the Sun gets away with printing pictures of topless women: because it’s what their readers want them to do. And all the tabloid newspapers vie with each other to be the first with the latest showbiz gossip, rumour and innuendo. They’re not doing this because they feel they are performing some kind of public service, but because they know that it’s what sells newspapers.
If nobody bought the tabloids, then we wouldn’t even be having this debate. The fact that we are demonstrates that it isn’t really about regulation at all, it’s about what people want.
There has always been a strand of totalitarian thinking which wants to dictate what people may find enjoyable. From Hitler banning jazz to Soviet Russia banning western pop music, one of the hallmarks of authoritarian government is that it seeks to regulate popular culture. And that is, I think, evident in some of the responses to Leveson. A lot of the antipathy towards the tabloid media stems from a metropolitan intellectual elitism which is intolerant of anything it deems beneath it. And, yes, I’m guilty of that too. The difference is that, unlike Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, I don’t want to regulate it out of existence. When it comes to free speech, I prefer Voltaire’s dictum: “I disapprove of your views, but would fight to the death for your right to express them.”
That’s not to say that we can’t benefit from looking at some of our existing legislation and trying to work out where it could be improved. One of the things I would like to see is a more egalitarian libel law, which doesn’t favour the side with the deepest pockets and which does give the wronged party a more effective recompense. And we do need a replacement for the Press Complaints Commission, one which isn’t dominated by the newspapers themselves. There’s a lot which can be done within our existing legal framework which will make a significant difference. But that’s all the more reason why statutory regulation is, in my opinion, unnecessary.
In a free society, regulation imposed by consumer demand is generally superior to regulation imposed by fiat. Ultimately, the best way to regulate newspapers is not to buy the ones that print crap.