If I had money to burn, I’d splash out £250 on all four volumes of Lord Justice Leveson’s report. But I don’t and will simply remark, wearing a bemused expression, that given that the inquiry aimed to shine a light on the murky dealings of press, politicians and public bodies, with transparency as its watchword, it is inappropriate that its own report is beyond the reach of all but those with the deepest pockets. Plus ca change.
So, I haven’t a clue what’s buried in there, beyond what has been widely reported. And will instead focus on the politics of it all.
The Prime Minister hasn’t done himself any favours by setting up a commission and then immediately, opting out of implementing its recommendations. Public opinion – if the petition is anything to go by, which has attracted 53,620 signatories so far – appears firmly to be on the side of, at the very least, a legal underpinning to future regulation of the press. There are no more swift halves to be ordered at the lock-in at the last chance saloon.
The issue has divided the coalition and whether the Conservatives like it or not, parliamentary numbers are likely to mean that a statutory framework will be created. Unless, of course, rebels from the Liberal Democrats and Labour can be pared off and the diddy parties manage to strike extortionate bargains in return for their votes. While we are a long way away from the parliamentary reckoning on any bill, it will be interesting to see what the SNP MPs do.
David Cameron is in the doo-doo on this one. Wrongdoing aplenty has been found, the Lord Justice has been clear and unequivocal in his blueprint for the future, but the Prime Minister is refusing to accept all the recommendations in full. Whether or not the ordinary voter on the Clapham omnibus cares a jot for the subtleties of the issue, he and she are left feeling that this is a party riding roughshod over the general sway of opinion. What everyone thinks matters none in the scheme of things, and to be seen to be thumbing the nose at what people think and want is a risky place for ruling political party to be in the run-in to a General Election.
Scotland’s First Minister, in contrast, has emerged from it all with his reputation largely unsullied and has been swift to act. Press regulation is a devolved issue and Holyrood can devise its own response to Leveson’s findings. Which is what the First Minister is proposing: there will be a parliamentary debate next week; all parties have been invited to talks; an independent group to be chaired by a law lord has been proposed. And while stating that he is against statutory regulation of the press, he and his government have already mooted the Irish model of regulation, which is voluntary, independent and underpinned by statute – all at the same time.
The Press Council is voluntary, set up by the Irish press, but runs independently of the press. However, its broad framework is laid out in statute. There is also a press ombudsman, who handles complaints and mediates between complainer and the press party complained of. That system too is underpinned by statute. Indeed, Lord Leveson appears to concur with the SNP’s view by suggesting that the Irish regulatory model could be adopted in the UK, though Irish commentators suggest that his purported model is stronger than the Irish one.
But this does not appear to satisfy either the UK Liberal Democrats or UK Labour. And we could end up with a dual system of regulation on these islands, with one lighter touch and different in scope and approach than the other.
You can see why a separate Scottish solution appeals to the First Minister and the SNP. It’s all part of the narrative arc referenced around the referendum, aimed at establishing in people’s minds that Scotland is indeed a different country, with different issues and a different way of doing things. The more this happens, the less threatening the scale of change required for independence becomes.
On a practical level, a two tier approach would create problems for much of the UK press, and indeed international and online outlets. Good, some Nationalists might suppose. Enemies of independence all, if the system of Scottish press regulation makes life more difficult for them, then some will see that as a very good thing. And while practical, operational matters would need detailed consideration, they are not insurmountable. There is after all, a precedent in the form of separate charity regulation for Scotland, which differs considerably in its framework and operation from the UK legislation and scheme. UK charities at the time squealed at the prospect of having to comply with two different systems but they have managed to adapt, and the creation of cross-border guidance has helped.
Indeed, the First Minister’s proposals actually create bigger problems for the Scottish arms of the UK parties. Do the Scottish Liberal Democrats follow Nick Clegg’s lead in pushing for statutory regulation north of the border too, or do they opt for a different Scottish solution? At this stage, neither, as all opposition parties have opted to play the man instead of the ball. They have fixed their short term sights on the First Minister, calling for Nicola Sturgeon, who they deem to be a more conciliatory figure they can work with, to represent the Scottish Government in the talks. Like they get to call the shots on this, or any other matter.
The First Minister could call their bluff and should do so. The person who should be leading for the Scottish Government in these talks is the person with the portfolio, who happens to be Fiona Hyslop. It would be interesting then to see if the opposition leaders step back from the fray likewise and give their places over to their respective media spokespeople.
As for the independent group, it’s good that there will be worthy people on there, but there is also a case for ordinary consumers of the press to be represented too. And if the group opts not to consider how Leveson might apply to online journalism and social media interaction, then it will have failed before it has started. Everyone, be they professional or citizen journalist, must take forward the changes and apply them to corporate and individual behaviours accordingly.
Everyone who purports to report anything must be accountable to the same rules, whether they blog, write, tweet, file from Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And increasingly, the state and its apparatus’s failure to meet the challenges posed by the virtual world is an issue. Yes, it’s hard, but the current free for all mentality tacitly enabled by the powers that be, is neither sustainable nor desirable.
However surefooted the First Minister has appeared on the issue of press regulation, it is all rather precipitate. For he is purporting to create a Scottish solution to something where we do not yet know if there is a specific Scottish problem that needs fixing.
Leveson did not look specifically at how the press behaves in the devolved parts of the UK. Are the kind of misdemeanours which prompted the Leveson inquiry prevalent in Scottish press behaviour? Is there phone hacking and criminal behaviour and inappropriate intrustion into people’s private lives? The Operation Motorman report certainly suggested that there was, but little of that came out in the evidence to Leveson. There is a Strathclyde police inquiry – Operation Rubicon – underway which has resulted in a handful of arrests to date but is still far from conclusion.
We could find ourselves in the bizarre situation of creating a Scottish solution to a UK problem before determining whether or not there is also a Scottish problem – distinct or otherwise – to be fixed. Imagine if there is found to be a Scottish problem which is quite different to the UK ones identified (which I doubt very much): we could end up with lighter touch regulation than will exist at the UK level. And that would be an unholy mess. Without a McLeveson, why do we need to work out how to provide for Leveson at all?
The purpose of any legislation is clear. It is to plug a gap, to give statutory effect to policy intentions of a government, to change an outmoded law or to change undesirable culture and behaviours. None of these readily apply to regulating the press in Scotland.
But the First Minister clearly has his eye on creating a separate Scottish regulatory framework for the press operating in Scotland, similar to Ireland’s with statutory underpinning. Which means that he and the Scottish Government intend to legislate, simply because they can. And that is the worst possible reason.