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 40.

    The media in the UK is rotten to the core and should be put on a tight leash.

    Anything short of statutory regulation would be a cop out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    The First Tee at Parliament's Royal & Ancient

    First up: Lords Reform-"Whack!"...oh dear, long grass.

    Second: A 3rd Runway-"Thwack!" ...oh no! long grass again.

    Next: Carbon Targets-"Clunk!"...drat! sliced to the right.

    Boundary Changes-"Thump!"...hard lines old chap-bunkered.

    Finally, Leveson-"Swoosh-whack!"...FORE!

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    There is a competition between newspaper journalists and politicians to see who can be the least unpopular.

    It seems that politicians are winning partly because newspapers' days are numbered and journalists don't seem to realise it and are putting off readers with their arrogant obsession with this subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    "just wait"

    No, management of hope & expectation well underway

    A minister declared "for a free press", more free than Putin's

    Salford lecturer lets slip the mask: "Will Cameron endorse, or ask others to intervene?" Shaky ground left between 'failed PCC' & 'political meddling with editorial freedom'

    Prof Tim: "unique combination.. illegal or actionable": prime purpose of barons?

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The ONLY dilemma for David Cameron is how he can still protect his buddies from public exposure of their chicanery and entrenched privilege fro the British People.

    Dave, if you do you will be a laughing stock.

    Just as much of a laughing stock as if you have any accommodation with political extremists of the right either in or outside your own party.

    Protect minors and the innocent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Am I a member of a free society? Or simply within reason, doing as I please up the point of breaking the law? Is it wrong that my freedom is curtailed? Why don't I have the freedom to kill, steal, cheat?

    What's all this about "freedom of the press"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Cameron is in trouble on this one.

    Once Brooks et al come to trial even the slippery eel will be done for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    startsmall @22,27
    "Keep" free?
    "Keep" independent?

    Truly 'to start small', start with the security - hence freedom - of every individual

    It is "every individual" who - in conscience - will deliver 'self-regulation': ambition for good sense, action against error and evil

    To 'regulate' the press without 'regulating' the rest, a luxury of sham in good times, battle as usual when gloves off

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    This story (sorry RP) is what is wrong with current "news".
    Let's try to second guess what someone is going to say, then all have a view on maybe.
    Can't we just wait until Thursday?

    PS Even worse when they forecast black and the answer is white, or vice versa.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Robert - love your articles as always, but shouldn't Nick Robinson be doing this one?! Feels like politics rather than business?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Medai is NOT capable of regulating itself. With Twitter, Facebook a mountain of other material hitting the editing rooms, there is just too much pressure to get the "news" out first. But Twitter, etc are not expected to be vetted; these Twitterers are - for the most part - just excited people. It is the duty of professionals to vet. A story not vetted shoud be story not printed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    The DPP, CPS and AG are much over-politicised - too many crimes are assessed on whether there is public good in justice being pursued.

    I recall politics was what decided UK going to war in Iraq with a 'sexed up dossier'

    The DPP has become public enemy No1 - before you get justice - the politicians decide whether the spin of the case will be 'beneficial' as is all & another form of corruption

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    As we have seen in the past,the press have a massive influence on the outcome of elections so it's no surprise that politicians such up to them.Unfortunately,biased reporting takes over from any balance there might have been;facts and statistics are twisted to suit editors' views and the public at large are not switched on enough to see through the bias.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    'big brother'
    unauthorised pictures of young royals
    'celebrity jungle'
    facebook pictures of people 'who might have done the murders'
    the public have been trained to be nasty.
    this is what sells papers and tv programs.
    Leveson will not change this.
    Politicians, bankers. people of influence...lead by example.
    LOL at this last sentence.
    Regulate the press..but don't regulate Bankers and politicos??

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Perhaps what is needed is for the DPP and the police to deal with evidence of breaking existing laws that protect people more readily and expeditiously. Take the complaints from the public more seriously. Why is it taking for ever to put Brooks and Coulson on trial compared with the rioters August 2011.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    It's as if Hague and Gove have had their memories erased and no longer recall why the Levesom inquiry was set up. But both of them have been paid handsomely by Rupe for newspaper columns, haven't they, so that might explain their selective amnesia.

    Money doesn't talk, it screams, as Bob Dylan once said.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    (meant 'wit')

    We are being subjected to propoganda. There is a false dichotomy here. We are being told the choice is between controlling politicians and controlling corporations.

    To that end we are being steered towards control of elected officials rather than big business.

    This is unacceptable. Both must be accountable. Checks AND balances please.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Business and Politics combined? Well, yes, the newspapers are sruggling with a new business model: to go digital or not and if so, how far? Some newspaper websites are worse than the print editions, are slow to correct mistakes, still less carry an apology. And yes, the proof of whatever follows Leveson will be the pudding of how much pre-election schmoozing takes place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    "it's the sun wot won it" 1992
    this headline says as much about the public ALLOWING the media to manipulate them as about media fandabulation.
    I don't think Leveson implementations will ever change this, we have a legal system to deal with libel, what happened with phone hacking and police payments should have been dealt with by the courts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.


    "All Leveson has to do
    is to set up a system
    ensuring existing laws
    are properly applied"
    Charming, up to around age 12
    But 100% application, to 100%, 24/7?

    "Leveson is about corruption"
    Many a true word without understanding
    Mistakes will be made, even in Heaven
    We are 'born ignorant', always to struggle
    But £-corruption is entirely 'our choice'
    Fear & Greed banished by agreed Equality


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