Given true words and jests and all that, it was perhaps unwise of the Daily Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher to tweet that the editors’ visit to Downing Street to discuss the Leveson report with the Prime Minister “felt like the summoning of the Five Families in The Godfather”.
Happily for the families, they run most of the news distribution in the UK, which means what most of us know of Leveson is what they wanted us to know — a recommendation of statutory underpinning that was so quickly rejected by the prime minister that they could make it the story. Those liberal outcasts The Guardian and The Independent went further in telling us what Leveson had said, but fortunately no one really reads them. As for the broadcasters, judicial reports the length of Proust do not make great television.
Because history is written by the victors, the great judicial report has become what the fastest, noisiest responses say it is. The detailed narrative of Leveson, as moulded by the hands of the industry it criticises, is now concern about some press activity, criticism of the Press Complaints Commission, an abject failure to understand what the internet has done — and, most importantly, a misguided attempt to introduce statutory control. The editors have scrupulously reported, but properly rationed, his examples of the worst excesses by journalists. To the frustration of Hacked Off and its supporters, only the most dedicated will plough through a report that carries page after page of serious indictment of the kind of behaviour that has become routine for much of the British newspaper industry.
Even those of us who oppose the mildest forms of statutory control may feel a little ambivalent about the speed with which the newspaper industry has wriggled off this latest hook, the sixth attempt in some 65 years to call time in the fabled “last chance saloon”. After all the evidence, all the examples of wickedness, are our editors to get clean away?
It looks as if they might, now they have woken up to the need to adopt a less truculent tone. The task is to kick the habits of a lifetime and work together on a proposal that takes us into a genuinely new territory of self-regulation. For the past 20 years, the industry has largely acquiesced in the PCC being stitched together — let us not say stitched up — by the late David English and by Paul Dacre, successive editors at the Daily Mail. When it became clear the game was up for the old PCC, the Telegraph joined forces, seconding Lord Black of Brentwood — formerly Guy Black of the PCC — to the cause. Lord Hunt was the acceptable face and the safe pair of hands. In the new world, he can be neither of those. The Hunt Black alternative is no more.
The editors have moved remarkably fast, though that comes easily to men and women used to stringing thousands of words of copy into a coherent whole each day. Meeting the day after Downing Street they sat down to compare the Leveson proposals for regulation with their own. Remarkably they appear to be prepared to move on almost everything, at least while there is a gun to their heads. The sticking points are reasonable. They want: a separate body to agree standards; no automatic right of complaint for third parties; more clarity on pre-publication advice; transparency to be an aspiration rather than a rule; no right for the regulator to “intervene in cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting and in so doing reflect the spirit of equalities legislation”.
The big one, of course, is the statute question. What is the recognition body that certifies the new regulator? No one in the industry wants Ofcom. Even Ofcom doesn’t want Ofcom. But how do we avoid the dread “statutory underpinning”? The editors won’t accept — or not if they have a choice in the matter — Parliament or the judiciary. They want a senior, retired judge. So we wait on Oliver Letwin, prime ministerial policy adviser, to work out a way that isn’t statutory.
The speed with which they have moved should keep them ahead of the majority at Westminster that is believed to support some form of statutory control. With goodwill they may even resolve the many detailed questions that emerge over the coming weeks: funding, pre-publication advice, committee membership, voluntary submission to the new regulator. But will they do this with a good heart, in the belief that behaving better can be a benefit rather than an obstacle to a free press? Or is this merely a political accommodation, designed to prolong the activities of a Mafia class?
— Kim Fletcher, editor