Leveson: Cameron's dilemma

Various newspapers Regulation of the press is set to be reformed following the Leveson Inquiry.

There are three moderately interesting things that sources close to Lord Justice Leveson have told me about his report into press standards, due to be published on Thursday.

First, it will be a monster, huge, Proustian in size (if not in literary ambition).

Second, it is written in the style of a court judgement - with all the recommendations pinned explicitly to the lorry-loads of public evidence delivered to the inquiry in oral and written form.

And, by the way, the reason Sir Brian Leveson is skipping town the moment he reads out his reform proposals, and not taking any questions from the media, is precisely because he is sticking to the letter of his mandate to conduct a judicial investigation: it would be unorthodox for a judge to be interrogated by those in the dock, the media, after passing sentence.

Third, much of the press will loathe the recommendations (that of course is the surmise of my sources, based on their knowledge of what Sir Brian Leveson will say, and their expectation of how it will go down with media groups).

Or to put it another way, the judge has rejected the plea for toughened-up self-regulation desired by the owners and editors of the Mail, Telegraph and Sun.

Now, as you can see, the defining characteristic of my knowledge of the Leveson report is that I don't know very much.

But even so, there is a clear implication that the government and Labour will have to make a difficult, once-in-a-generation assessment of the way that the structure of the media industry has changed over the past few years.

Many politicians will of course say they are evaluating Leveson on the basis of whether or not it represents the slippery slope to restricting the ability of the fourth estate to hold power to account.

And, as it happens, in the days before I joined the BBC and the opinion-vocalising part of my brain was temporarily shut down, I was on record as opposing any kind of statutory regulation of newspapers, precisely because I feared an important bulwark of our freedoms might be imperiled.

Now someone might challenge pre-BBC Robert Peston by asking whether today's media moguls are champions and guarantors of our liberties or over-mighty barons - who have shown wilful neglect for the privacy and liberties of vulnerable individuals.

So for the idealists, the force or weakness of Leveson's plans will be in how he curbs the ability of the press to trample on the innocent while reinforcing its power to unseat the corrupt.

But there will also be a far more cynical calculation by the leaders of the main parties: has the press been so weakened by the rise of the internet and recession that they can stand up to it, back Leveson, and not risk being consigned to the oblivion of opposition forever?

In almost 30 years as a journalist, I have watched prime ministers and opposition leaders sucking up to newspaper owners and editors. And when I have asked these giants of politics why they act like pygmies in the presence of the Murdochs, for example, they have said to me - in terms - that they don't like doing it, but that it is necessary for what they see as the greater good of securing office.

Here is the thing: can political parties now take their message directly to the people via Twitter and Facebook (and television and radio, as ever); or can they still be made or broken by a headline in the Sun and Mail?

They won't say so, but David Cameron and Ed Mililband will be thinking pretty hard about what fighting the next election would be like, if they were perceived by the Mail, Sun and Telegraph as mortal enemies.

Now the prime minister is getting Sir Brian Leveson's report a day before the rest of us, at 1.30pm on Wednesday.

According to those close to him, it is theoretically possible that he will simply accept all of Sir Brian's proposals - although they did not say that with any great conviction.

And David Cameron won't simply reject Leveson and say that the status quo is fine.

In other words he appears to be hoping that the press - in its entirety - rapidly comes up with a much toughened-up system of self regulation that would have three central elements: fines for misbehaviour of up to £1m; very prominent apologies, and investigations of misconduct that are genuinely independent.

But if he trusts the press to sort itself out in this way there is a risk for him. What if, as is possible, disclosures in the criminal trials of News International staff relating to phone hacking and alleged bribing of officials turn out to be even more shocking than the disclosures made so far?

Those trials start next autumn and winter. The prime minister will need to be pretty confident that reinforced self-regulation agreed before then will be seen to have the deterrent force necessary to prevent repetition of whatever emerges in those court hearings.

Otherwise he risks being attacked, shortly before the next election, for having let newspapers off too lightly.

Robert Peston Article written by Robert Peston Robert Peston Economics editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Big test for Levenson?
    If he is more than an arrogant money grabbing lawyer he will recognise that the underlying problems are at a constitutional level & not at a regulatory level? 'Constitutional level' means the relationship between big business & the 'state' as is rank & file citizens as does not exist at the moment - as this constitutional void is now filled by a self serving political class

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I hope Leveson stops, or severely limits, the social contact between police, politicians, civil servants and big business (including the media).

    If they have to discuss something, do it in an office, minuted, during daylight hours, rather than in the evening at a lavish party or posh restaurant. Distance needs to be inserted between these groups, IMO.

    A self-regulated press hasn't worked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Aqualung @12
    Hacking or Austerity?

    If the public is 'awakened', rather than just 'more confused', the next election will be overtaken by general disgust & general demand for democracy

    'Free barons' are NOT the 'free press' that so many died for and still die for. Whatever the 'structure' of politics, press, healthcare, etc. the need we share is for Equal Partnership, affording freedom and trust

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Why is the Business Editor commenting on this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    All Leveson has to do is to set up an accountable system for ensuring that the existing laws are properly applied.

    Phone hacking tapping etc - occurred because those in power abdicated their responsibility with regard to applying existing law & not because of a need for more regulations to be ignored by the same class of corrupt officials.

    Leveson is about corruption & not press regulation

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Is it so beyond the whit of man to distinguish between 'holding leaders to account' and 'abusing the rights of individuals'?

    The two can be separated. Everyone reading this can understand the difference. But the self regulating press has not done so.

    A prisoner of conscience should not be trusted with his own keys. That stands for politicians and also journalists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    pd @1: just a matter of guts? Or, as Robert implies, balance of calculation? The barons weakened, the people awakened

    dumb @2: as now - affordable disregard. Or, as Robert is near to saying, our subjection to Fear & Greed, "the corrupt"

    ogre @3: sadly without effect. Perhaps sadly, technology as much as hubris the downfall

    Soothsayer @4: indeed, a Public Service blog!

    Many others put to shame

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I just hope Leveson has taken note of the evidence from disabled people and academic research about the hate campaign by newspapers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I am a bit surprised that the outcome isnt being held back as it could prejudice the individual cases being brought , and, allow Government to hide from making a decision for another 12 months.

    And as for being attacked before the next election it will be the financial mess we are in and there ineptness at sorting out the banks rather than hacking that is their achilles heel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    " they have said to me - in terms - that they don't like doing it, but that it is necessary for what they see as the greater good of securing office".

    So there it is ambition before the greater good. !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    This is a hard call, for we need a strong press to help keep in check our elected and non elected masters. For without investigating journalism they would run-a-muck. So what we need is a morally strong press however we will probably get what so many people want and that is a gutter press.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Fines of "up to £1m" are peanuts to Murdoch, Desmond et al. Whether self-regulated or externally regulated, fines for serious malfeasance need to be of a magnitude that will cause pain and a profits warning from the parent organisation

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    We've seen this so many times in the past few years: in politics, finance and, indeed, the press.

    Self-regulation doesn't.

    And what else would you expect?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The call will inevitably be for the press to be given one more last chance. But, as I posted yesterday:


    They've been given half a dozen of those since 1953 and the bad behaviour hasn't been noticeably curbed. And what the press really fears is properly independent regulation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    To stop what happened, we end up with Big Brother (1984 style that is). Do we want that? - I suspect not. Do we want what we had - I suspect not also. Does anyone have a clue? each has a bias one way or another. And as we have a system whereby nothing is wrong until the act is committed and we dont wish for a system that prevents an act "just in case". Someone has a very difficult choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    "has the press been so weakened by the rise of the internet"

    "can political parties now take their message directly to the people via Twitter and Facebook (and television and radio, as ever)"

    Swapping one set of masters for another.


    Nothing is without it's dangers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Crikey, Robert. What a superb blog! It was so good I read it twice.
    Journalism of this quality will eventually erase the embarassments of Entwistle, Savile, etc. Please keep it up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Of course the politicians will try to wriggle out of this. The only answer is to stop buying newspapers - I did years ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    sounds like the worst thing that could possibly happen. Like you're earning 25 grand a week your company can probly afford a few 80 quid speeding tickets. An oldie but a goodie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    If Cameron fails to implement Leveson's suggestions, it will just look like he hasn't got the guts to.


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