This article was first published in the Guardian
Nothing titillates journalists more than talking about their profession or, should I call it, their trade. The Leveson inquiry has spawned almost daily public discussions about the future of the Press Complaints Commission, freedom of the press and standards. At the last count three parliamentary committees are looking into the issue, listening to academics and former editors opine ad infinitum about “co-regulation”, “enhanced regulation”, “self-regulation” and “statutory regulation”.
Most of the time, however, the people who matter are silent or surly. Present-day tabloid and middle-market editors seem to have convinced themselves that the hacking scandal is a bit of a diversionary tactic by the government, and that, aside from a few technical changes here and there, it will blow over in time. Keep calm and carry on.
An atmosphere of denial permeated the recent Society of Editors conference. On the issue of phone hacking, many simply did not engage, beyond saying that the guilty will be punished and we will all move on. We have moved on … to the Royal Courts of Justice, and it does not make for a pleasant spectacle.
The first two days of victims’ hearings at Leveson have been enervating. From the quiet dignity of Milly Dowler’s parents to the fragile suffering of Mary-Ellen Field – sacked by Elle Macpherson, who wrongly suspected her of feeding the press – those who have suffered at the hands of the phone hackers have illustrated the bullying and the snooping of the hacks.Margaret and Jim Watson saw a child die as a result. Others had gone through breakdowns.
Their heart-rending testimony was somewhat overshadowed by Hugh Grant’s angry exchanges, his accusations against the Mail on Sunday, and the subsequent war of words among the lawyers. The more studied performance of comedian Steve Coogan this afternoon, including damning testimony against Andy Coulson, the prime minister’s former head of communications, was piercingly effective.
All the while Leveson has sat largely in silence, absorbing the magnitude of the task he has taken on. He has to find a way to prevent future criminality; to help create a new body that can regulate and punish quickly and effectively, and come up with guidelines on privacy that leave the private individual in peace but allow the press to expose the hypocritical. He needs to defend free expression and reinforce good investigative journalism that already faces a host of restrictions. He must try not to hasten the economic decline of an industry that is adopting increasingly desperate measures to keep itself afloat.
From everything I’ve seen of Leveson and those advising him, he gets it. Of course, caution is in order. Memories turn to the Hutton inquiry. The sharp questioning from the presiding judge then lulled everyone into a false sense of security. Hutton’s report was a shocker, a whitewash for government that opened the door to the emasculation of the BBC. And Leveson knows his recent history.
Yet those who need him most – the tabloids – are not helping him. By hiding or lashing out against their critics, the editors, proprietors and their legal teams are playing into the hands of the many voices calling for strict controls. Anyone who has sat before a parliamentary committee knows that the default position of MPs and peers is to hit back at the “beasts” in the media.
This is reflected in ministers’ positions. Kenneth Clarke, the justice secretary, told the Society of Editors not to underestimate the “shocking effects” of recent revelations. Later that day, Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, served warning about a government clampdown on contempt of court. He has since acted on his threat.
The PCC, under its new chairman, is looking at its own future. It aims to submit a detailed report to Leveson in the spring. By the nature of its constitution, it depends on the constructive engagement of its members. The more they resist, the more churlish their involvement with Leveson, the worse for the tabloids will be the result.
For a small army of celebrities the demise of the papers they loathe will be a cause for celebration. Yet the narrowing of a media discourse to an elite talking to an elite, through three or four “quality” papers, will ill serve freedom of expression and democracy. It is not too late for the tabloids to get real. Their obduracy is furrowing Leveson’s brow – and narrowing his room for manoeuvre.
John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship. He’s on twitter @johnkampfner