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 80.


    Aaah. I had forgotten that priceless comment!

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.


    My Lady C comment was to the Judge's(?)/lawyer's(?) comments - When Chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, asked if it were the kind of book "you would wish your wife or servants to read". 400 characters prevented a more detailed exposition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Cuddly texts & cosy private chats between a handful of the powerful & our so called political elites
    Straight application of existing laws

    No effective regs if the law isn't applied top to bottom

    LIBOR fixing, Phone Hacking et al - the establishment avoid consequences - from there, whether it's duty of care or fraud etc that aren't applied, everything rots top down

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    24 Minutes ago

    "I don't have access to your LOL texts.
    Care to send them to me?
    Or publish them on whatever social media that you use?"

    Of course you can when I become PM and start lecturing about "transparency" and making govt appointments and give unlimited access to govt Policy to a former Tory supporting media employee.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    What 4th power? Investigative journalism is almost dead and the mainstream press is all about telling people what they want to hear.

    Joe Blogger does the same for free.


    And ended up smearing MacAlpine.

    Well done, Joe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    No state regulation for 300 years? Just to be pedantic, during WW2, we had the Ministry of Information-more popularly known as the 'Ministry of Aggravation' & 'Mystery of Information'-checking all press stories to the extant that, in the news, Britain had no weather in case the Luftwaffe got ideas as to the best time to hop accross the Channel and drop their bombs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    All I personally ask from journalism is an understanding of who owns the publication and what their business interests are. Then I can make my own judgements as to the likelihood of its truthfulness.

    It would be nice in addition to have an agreed definition of what constitutes public interest, and every article should have its specific public interest defined explicitly and published alongside.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Leveson is about corruption & not press regulation
    ~ ~ ~
    Think it was intended to be the other way round but the enquiry had to turn to corruption as an example of illegal behaviour due to the clamour of various individuals.

    Problem is that Leveson is now expected to be all things to all men and come up with a perfect solution to everything.


  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    What 4th power? Investigative journalism is almost dead and the mainstream press is all about telling people what they want to hear.

    Joe Blogger does the same for free.

    Today's gossip- and celebrity-fixated, mogul-owned, minimum-common-denominator oriented, populist press needs to die a horrible dead of a 1000 cuts at the hands of Internet bloggers so that real Journalism rises back to the top.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    We already have all of the above-that is why you can not have access to their LOL txts,
    I don't have access to your LOL texts.
    Care to send them to me?
    Or publish them on whatever social media that you use?

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    How anyone can defend the press is laughable I'm sure there are plenty of innocent people on the receiving end of their adbominable practices would have prefered a russian press policy

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Post 55. We have a regulated tv

    So you don't think that Leveson will affect TV?

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    23 Minutes ago
    "government can decide what we read.
    Is that what you want?"

    We already have all of the above-that is why you can not have access to their LOL txts, and Cheerleader for Right Wing Press promoted. And appointment in govt made without full checks?Had you not noticed because you are being fed only stories approved by the Tories Press Office?

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    I wonder if Denmark's press is free since it has a legislated body to control it.

  • Comment number 66.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.


    Re that link...

    The BBC is changing the message as it goes along. That's one part of the propoganda system:


    (can't find the original ZH article, hope you don't mind).

    The Other part of the propogandists toolkit is misdirection. Seen any of that?

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    The UK does not have a "free" Press e.g. when the Tories beloved Currant Bun conducted a Poll recently that came out heavily against the Tories they simply refused to publish the results. The right wing Press in UK continue to write heavily distorted stories against immigrants and stir up hatred in a wanton manner that no one is allowed to challenge under the aegis of this extreme Right Wing govt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    As I recall, one of the central points of the enquiry was to investigate the relationship between politicians and the press. Yet a series of messages between Cameron and Brooks were declared not material to the enquiry by a Downing Street lawyer - and that was the end of it. The old boys network is alive and well, looking after it's own. As usual. Anything to say about that Brian?

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    "what you want?"

    Asking "us": not as fellow-sociopaths, as potential democrats?

    The current 'dilemma' is not just for tactical Cameron, but for any giving more than a moment's thought

    Any 'solution' will be shaky, to let us down, one way or the other or both

    Until, PERHAPS, enough can understand & agree, to make ALL 'free', as Equal Partners

    One TV Licence: one paper, many editors?

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    This is the Lady Chatterley defence re servants!


    And I always understood that Lady C had rather a penchant for servants!


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