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 120.

    You'll see of course I was responding to a criticism of the BBC - not sure how many newspapers they sell exactly, but perhaps you can enlighten me?

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Leveson will give value for money.
    A big report.
    Something for everyone.
    To be cherry picked so that an observer can feel happy.

    But what will it achieve?
    That is up to the government.

    And I cannot see them changing horses in mid stream.

    Nice little observation there....

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    So many last chances... so many lost opportunities....

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.


    Indeed so.

    Someone once defended the English law by saying that it was "open to all". "So is the Ritz", came the reply.

    A legal system stacked in favour of the wealthy is one of Britain's most striking anachronisms. We need either a spending cap (say £20,000 each, max) or time limits (four hours to present a case) - or preferably both.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    Re 115, 92, moderated.

    But, you do understand the point being made, l hope, dear BBC.

    It is not what has happened, but the fear of exposing problems with higher authority in media. The sssssh, we can't have that out in the open.

    l'm contemplating at the moment, but hope l raised a smile. No good will come of Peston's move out of economics.

  • Comment number 115.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    @108 friendlycard @100 treacle_01
    appreciate that Leveson is as much a criticism of shortcomings of legal system as of press behaviour.
    Why did judges allow 'superinjunctions' to curb reporting of misdemeanours of certain individuals.
    These 'gagging orders' are available only to the superrich, and the judges in question should take this into account and only award them in very special circs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Know what you're saying, but 'news' is all about reporting what's new.

    And here was little old innocent me thinking that it was about selling newspapers.

    Thank you for indicating to me the enlightened attitude of the British press.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

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

    Know what you're saying, but 'news' is all about reporting what's new. It's not always about the big capitalist conspiracy

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Robert is your source as reliable as the Tucker for Governer one?
    Cameron is stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, you can make your mind up about who is which.
    I imagine Nigel Farage is licking his lips at a Cameron u turn. Also expect High Grant let alone the Dowlers, the McCann's as well as the parents of the Soham murder victims to do a Joanna Lumley on him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    The Gods are angry !
    Regulate those investment bankers before its too late !
    Mark Cafrney just a Goldamn Sacks stoogie !
    Go on remove this post too.
    It won't save you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Will Carney speak truth unto?

    Or wait for Folly to totter?

    Slavery & unemployment, the 'concerns' of millennia

    Luckily, slave health 'important'; ours too, as cannon-fodder

    Eugenicist Beveridge sold welfare: 'good for business'

    Tried to sell Higher Family Allowance for 'high families'

    Beveridge 'poisoned own well' of Full-Employment

    Conceded "up to 3% unemployment"

    Rat Race & Welfare Trap

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.


    Libel is not good enough when they can pay their lawyers far more than the individual can afford.

    This is not just a media issue but a huge general failing with our legal system - the only fix is a cap on spending plus strict time-limits on hearings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Post 96 "shome misstake surely" as Private Eye would not doubt say.
    The government is surely in the presses pocket not the other way round.
    Its not just this governments but Blair and Brown were just as bad.
    Cameron must be having kittens about whether Brooks and or Coulson initiate the "nucelar" option in their defence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.


    All govts are 'covering up' as appears to be why Milliband very feeble on terms of reference on Leveson; as deflects from Blair/Brown (13 yrs in govt - must have known something about hacking).
    Has Leveson picked up on the Westminster constitutional weakness as allows/encourages this behaviour by politicians; as a well drafted UK constitution would put the politicians in the dock?

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    @99 startsmall.

    Carney was mentioned at the very beginning. Thought that, as he had successfully guided the Canadian banks both before and during the crisis that he was far too good a choice to be chosen!

    Also understood that he didn't want it!

    For me, a great choice (I think, hopefully!)

    At least this is a business topic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    @102 supercalmdown
    bank shares have all dropped about 5% in the last minutes after MC was named as master of ceremonies at BOE
    good for economy or disaster for UK PLC?
    disaster for UK PLC or good for economy?

    let's have a fight (with apologies to Harry Hill)

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    The media have become an over-mighty estate and need to be brought to book. They behaved above the law in an arbitrary fashion. They have brought it upon themselves.

    The question is will justice be done? The answer to that is crudely and often not at all.

    If the media had stuck to investigating the many wrongs in this country rather than poking into private lives, Leveson would be unnecessary.

  • Comment number 102.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    "Why don't I have the freedom to kill, steal, cheat?"

    If you look at the crime figures relating to murder, theft and fraud then it would actually suggest that you DO have the freedom to do those things. The only problem is if you get caught.


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