Leveson: Breaking our spirit, summoning the whip

What is it about the whole Leveson exercise that is so...disturbing?

The darker side to Leveson
Charles Crawford
On 4 December 2012 12:06

I have been trying to work out just why the whole Leveson exercise is so … disturbing.

Is it because the nation's self-esteem has shrivelled to the point that we are somehow expected to take advice from actor Hugh Grant on standards of public or private morality?

Is it because a sprawling, pompous, 1800-page report appears and then almost immediately the Leader of the Opposition bobs to the fore, wailing for its full implementation?

Is it because we are suffering from a radical case of PMIO (Post-Modern Irony Overload) when members of Parliament who have been revealed by our newspapers to have engaged in a wide range of corrupt practices (and been impressively impenitent about it) are now queuing up to "regulate" those very newspapers?

Is it because the report is skewed from the very start, in that it deliberately glosses over the murkiest aspect of the whole "press scandal", namely the way in which police officers for years have been working closely with journalists and improperly leaking details of investigations?

All these factors and myriad more generate severe unease in any normal person. But to what do they boil down? They boil down to a paradigm shift away from any clear view of what a free society actually is.

Back in the 18th century we did not have newspapers in their current form. Instead we had a riotous multitude of printing presses and people using them to run off leaflets and pamphlets. "Freedom of the press" was all about denying the state control over these private printing presses. As to what was printed, the state came down hard on publications that incited the mob to rise up against the state ("sedition") but largely left it to private individuals to defend their reputations in the courts as they saw fit through the libel and slander laws.

Over time printing presses moved from small artisan workshops and became major industrial plants. It became possible to print and distribute ‘news-papers’ quickly across the whole country. A few titles came to dominate the national market, so different issues of scale and responsibility arose.

Newspapers were a private business whose product had to be sold. It turned out that in one section of the market (or rather in all sections of the market but done in different ways) a good way to sell newspapers was to give readers assorted scandals and titillating tittle-tattle. This created a problem. How to balance the reasonable interests of citizens going about their private business against the reasonable interests of citizens who want to know "what is going on"?

What in fact is that "private" and "public"? Surely it just can't be right that the newspapers make money from frothing up for the amusement of millions of people private unhappiness or misfortune or stupidity?

On the other hand, maybe that's a price worth paying if the threat of having real scandals exposed keeps politicians and other powerful people in line? Above all, who decides?

There was a wise national consensus that if anyone should decide it should not be politicians. Eventually the industry agreed to set up some codes of conduct and a Press Council was created in 1953. After more scandals and titillating tittle-tattle this gave way in 1991 to a Press Complaints Commission, a body that diligently administers quite a complex system of self-regulation by the newspaper industry.

And so wearily on to Leveson.

First, the Leveson report fails to grasp the most important feature of the current 'press' scene, namely that the industrial model of newspapers is busily dying. We are moving back (or more precisely forward) to something much more like the original 18th century free-for-all. We are the media. Everyone's PC and smart phone is now a printing press. Twitteristas and YouTubers report 'news' far faster than so-called mainstream media outlets can keep up.

You might think that that is better or worse than what we have now. And you may be right. The key point is that in any sense that matters this situation is a priori unregulatable, except by focused state brutality.

Second, the Leveson report lacks any sense of proportion. Yes, some newspapers connived in eavesdropping on private telephones. But the number of telephones concerned was a vanishingly microscopic proportion of all telephones in the country. Yes, some newspapers improperly or unfairly exploited private misfortune and undeservedly wrecked some reputations. But how in principle to balance those misdeeds against the mountains of normal, competent, helpful reporting and analysis represented by the industry's daily output as a whole? As a famous Ambassador used to say, some things are important – but don’t matter.

Third, and most important, in a free society there are ways to get results that empower citizens and due process alike. Existing laws against phone-hacking can be enforced. Regulations stopping police officers from leaking details of investigations can be upheld. Newspapers that tell lies about people can be sued for libel. Readers can vote with their wallets and stop buying newspapers that overstep reasonable limits. Newspapers can be shut down. And so on.

The point is that none of this requires "regulation" by the state. All that is required is that established systems work properly. If they don't work properly, why should we expect new systems to work any better?

Every year a Press Freedom Index is published by Reporters without Borders. According to the 2011/2012 Index the UK sits proudly in 28th place, sandwiched between former communist Slovakia and Niger.

Any such index of course has its methodological problems. This one relies upon the views of "journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists", people who by their nature perhaps have a rather strange view of the world. Still, it's hard to argue with the general sense of the index and the fact that countries like Finland, Norway, Estonia and Netherlands sit proudly at the top, while Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and tragic Eritrea languish at the bottom.

If we had a political class interested in improving this country, as opposed to protecting their positions and privileges, those people would be champing at the bit to move the UK firmly up towards the very top of this table. Lord Justice Leveson would have been tasked to come up with recommendations to make this happen. Who knows, maybe he would have come up with a terse, game-changing five-page report that made plenty of sense.

Instead we have the grisly spectacle of the Prime Minister meeting a group of editors today to discuss the Leveson report's findings, an event that demeans all concerned. Now, what does that remind me of?  Ah. Got it.

"The soul, Peter, is that which can't be ruled. It must be broken. Drive a wedge in, get your fingers on it - and the man is yours. You won't need a whip - he'll bring it to you and ask to be whipped."

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

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