If anyone believes that it can be business as usual in Fleet Street, there's shurely shome mishtake
By Paul Goodman
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Four MPs went to prison after the expenses scandal. Voters would not have put up for a moment with self-regulation continuing for the rest. Journalists will surely go to jail, too, in the wake of Hackgate. But some seem to believe that Fleet Street can eventually return to business as usual. As one its greatest-ever operators used to say: shurely shome mishtake.
Now I'm not claiming that the Commons and newspapers, or that MPs and journalists, are horses of the same colour - having first been one and now being the other, I appreciate that they're not. MPs are public servants and responsible to their constituents. Furthermore, they are, increasingly, financed by them, and by the taxpayer more broadly. Newspapers are private businesses, accountable not to voters - or even their readers - but to their owners and shareholders. Furthermore, MPs are charged with running the country, while even the mightiest Editor is not (though there are always some who believe otherwise, at least from time to time).
The wiser heads in Fleet Street thus recognise that David Cameron can't just respond to the report as he pleases, and that only his Cabinet stands between them and a bill - which MPs could amend as they wish. What will Lord Justice Leveson recommend? We don't know, but there are two straws in the wind. The first is the terms of his inquiry. He was authorised to look into the “culture, practices and ethics of the media”, and “the relationship of the press with the public, police and politicians” - in short, into Life, the Universe and Everything, not just press regulation. The Leveson Report will have the sweep and scope of a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
The second is the disposition and outlook of the judge himself. Entire newsrooms of journalists have lined up - with Michael Gove and Boris Johnson scrabbling at each other to get to the front of the queue - to mock the judge and decry his works. Rather than join them, I simply point out that - being a judge - Lord Justice Leveson has little more grasp of the workings and culture of newspapers than I do of those of the Judges Council. Hence his puzzlement at the failure of Fleet Street to separate news and comment (which, to be fair to him, the Press Complaints Commission code requires). This cannot be done. News has always come with comment - from St Matthew's Gospel on. The very word "Gospel" is comment. Its news, it claims, is good news.
So given the breadth of his remit, Lord Justice Leveson could propose almost anything. He could recommend, for example, that no journalist ever have lunch with a politician again. Or he could advise that an equivalent of OFCOM be set up by statute to deal with complaints from readers. (After the way in which Kate and Gerry McCann, Christopher Jeffries, the Hillsborough victims, the 7/7 dead, and a depressingly long list of non-celebrities were treated, many people would look up briefly from their busy lives, and smile approvingly at such a recommendation.) Or he could suggest that VAT be charged on newspapers. We will have to wait and see.
And since we must wait, it's worth turning back to that comparison between the Commons and newspapers, and thinking about it further. As I say, the Commons has IPSA, and the papers may end up with something similar. But it isn't IPSA that keeps MPs in line. It's freedom of information which, properly applied, allows constituents to judge whether their own MP's expenses are reasonable. FOI is, so speak, the silver bullet (which is why IPSA is unnecessary and should be abolished). There is nothing analagous to fit Fleet Street - no catch-all fix to help the little guy, or girl, whose reputation has been unjustly trashed and who can't afford to sue.
That said, Guy Black, the Chairman of the Press Standards Board of Finance, which oversees the Press Complaints Commission, has had a pretty good shot at fashioning a plan that will fly. He wants a new body with the power to fine newspapers up to £1 million. Even the Guardian, probably the paper least unsympathetic to statutory regulation, has conceded that Lord Black's plan "though far from perfect...is not, as its critics claim, the status quo. It promises real investigations, tough sanctions and a commitment to the enforcement of standards that its predecessor, the PCC, did not have".
Amidst the fog of war (or at least this week's pre-publication manoevering) it is possible to glimpse an end to what Boris Johnson has called "this senseless slaughter” - this Ypres of a confrontation between Parliament and the papers - and a return to the usual Cold War. On the one hand, a new, independent, non press-run complaints body with the power to fine and punish would be set up. On the other, a statutory regulation bill would be prepared, to be introduced if the body fails - perhaps backed up by a timetable. I am against statutory press regulation. But I can't put my hand on my heart and claim that such a plan would be the end of the world.
This may be complacent. The scheme might, perhaps, turn out to be the start of the slippery slope that leads to censorship. (Though arguably, we are sliding down one already: a journalist working on a newsdesk has been arrested merely for taking a call about an MP's lost phone.) Certainly, it would not be perfect - nothing in this world is. For example, it might well be irrelevant to such buccaneering enterprises as Guido Fawkes, which has the wit to place much of its operation abroad. Indeed, Leveson could prove the law of unexpected consequences. Regulated, dull papers and a free, vibrant blogosphere could kill off Fleet Street altogether: good news for this website and others; not so good, perhaps, for journalism and readers as a whole.
This plan would also leave unresolved the frighteningly arbitrary use of state power to prosecute those who tweet, and the rogue-befriending libel laws (which the Government, to its credit, is reforming). But if it comes, the papers could do worse than suck it and see. Their firepower would be better concentrated on any proposal to wall off politicians from the press altogether, or to single out the Murdoch papers for doing what others did too, or to set out constaints on the papers more tight than those that bind the BBC. The judge may not propose anything of the kind. But, as I keeping saying, we don't know.
What we do know is that bits of Leveson will happen. I thought originally that statutory regulation wouldn't be among them, and may still be right. But we know, too, that Fleet Street is in poor condition to fight the judge. The papers are a bit like "Sir", the ageing actor-manager in "The Dresser" who clings to his past triumphs. But their readership is falling. The economics that underpin their online versions may not be viable. The audience is leaving the theatre.