Andrew Thorpe-Apps 9.02am
Lord Justice Leveson’s report, published last month, called for a new press regulatory body with “statutory underpinning”.
Lord Leveson’s proposals, if fully implemented, would remove journalists’ protection from the rigours of the Data Protection Act. They would make it near-impossible for the press to expose corruption and wrongdoing. And without a free press, we would never have heard about MPs’ expenses.
Many on the Left argued that David Cameron should follow Lord Leveson’s recommendations to the letter. After all, they exclaimed, what is the point in calling an inquiry, then ignoring its findings?
That argument is flawed. If Parliament’s job were simply to rubber-stamp the opinions of the judiciary, then what use is there in having an elected legislature? All legislative functions may as well be handed over to the chaps in wigs.
Labour’s championing of statutory regulation was nothing to do with moral principles. Nor was it for the protection of ‘ordinary people’. More than anything else, it was about retribution. Many on the Left still blame the Sun for Labour’s 1992 election defeat. The Left wants the press to feel some heat – similar to that which Labour politicians feel when they are under scrutiny. Lord Leveson has provided a golden opportunity.
During the Blair years, Labour cultivated a close relationship with the press. Alastair Campbell developed a close friendship with Rebekah Brooks. Mr Blair frequently met Rupert Murdoch and even became godfather to one of his daughters. The upshot of this was that the press focused on attacking the Conservatives. It was simply not in the Left’s interest to regulate the press.
Yet when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, newspapers switched allegiance. Mr Brown was not a winner. Labour began to get a taste of their own medicine, and the Left’s hatred of the free press boiled to the surface.
So Ed Miliband’s demand that Leveson’s recommendations be implemented ‘in full’ can now be better understood. Mr Miliband could not possibly have read the 2,000-page report from cover to cover, yet his call for full implementation suggested he agreed with every word. In reality, Mr Miliband was pandering to the majority view in his party, something we should be well used to by now.
But the Labour leader then made a U-turn in the form of a draft Bill. Suddenly, Labour was no longer in favour of ‘full implementation’ with Ofcom regulating the press. Were we finally going to hear Miliband’s own views, even if they should conflict with party big-wigs? Not a bit of it.
Labour’s draft Bill, which lacks detail, calls for the Lord Chief Justice to oversee a new regulator called the Press Standards Trust, checking every three years that it is working effectively. Publications that refuse to sign up to the regulator would have higher damages awarded against them should they lose court cases.
The draft Bill, which was discussed in cross-party talks yesterday, represents ‘statutory underpinning’ by stealth. It is a fudge, designed to keep all sides happy, and it speaks volumes of Mr Miliband’s inability to nail his colours to the mast.
The Conservatives want a system of independent self-regulation with severe penalties for wrongdoing but without statutory regulation. David Cameron rightly argues that regulation is a screw that will only get tightened:
“Once you start drafting a law that is a statutory underpinning, you find you have effectively created a Press Bill. It may not have that much which is frightening in it. But it becomes a very easily amendable piece of work, which is why we should try and avoid it.”
Labour’s draft Bill does offer a ‘guarantee’ of press freedom, but it is difficult to see how this is feasible with even limited statutory regulation. The press is either free or it isn’t – there is no ‘third way’.
Mr Miliband has blindly followed the Left’s predictable response to the Leveson Report. The press is viewed as a rabid hound that must be tethered. It is of course Mr Miliband’s prerogative to follow advice and even to change his mind; but it reflects poorly on his leadership. It backs up what we have learnt about Ed – he is a follower, not a leader. He frequently calls for inquiries, and when the results are in, is prepared to support all recommendations without hesitation.
The Left have had the press in their sights for some time. Lord Leveson’s report was labelled a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity long before it was even published. It has exposed the Left’s resentment and fear of a press that is free to scrutinise. It has also shown why Ed Miliband must never be given the keys to Number 10.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @AG_ThorpeApps