Some early thoughts on the Leveson compromise

When asked about the Leveson inquiry last night on BBC Radio Four’s Westminster Hour, I suggested it was a fast moving story with all sorts of twists and turns likely in the next twenty-four hours. So it has proved.

At 2.30 this morning, the terms of an agreement were finally reached between all three political parties.

It is important to remember why David Cameron commissioned the Leveson inquiry in the first place. Literally dozens journalists have now been arrested as a result of a wide-ranging inquiry into phone hacking. Their conduct has been utterly indefensible, particularly amongst those working within the Murdoch Empire which seems at times not to have considered itself subject to the usual constraints of the criminal law. (Of course we cannot forget that they have been protected by friends in high places – elite politicians going back twenty years or so but also, of course, the police.) The current system of self-regulation had patently failed.

However there was a widely held view – one, I hasten to add, that I firmly agreed with – that the issue of press freedom was far too important to be used as a partisan political football. Leveson was designed to navigate us through these tricky waters and the report that resulted from the inquiry was pretty robust, producing recommendations that I broadly supported.

What was particularly unimpressive over the months that followed the release of those recommendations, however, was the hysterical tone of lobbying. This was from both sides of the divide, it is true, but the most alarmist voices were those of large global media groups who frequently wrapped up naked commercial interest in a cloak of sanctimonious support for individual rights. These were the same groups guilty of phone hacking and casual criminality on an almost industrial scale.

Overnight, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians bashed out a deal that could best satisfy all parties. Pragmatic politics has won through. Throughout this debate, I have shared the view of my colleague, George Eustice in regarding this as a once in a generation opportunity to deliver sensible reform and establish a credible system of self regulation which should strengthen good journalism. The compromise addresses most of the worries pro-Leveson MPs had around independence of the regulator board, but the elite political class also believes it represents something the press can live since it avoids detailed statutory compulsion.

Nevertheless, I have one lingering fear. When in 1971 the then Conservative government passed the Industrial Relations Act it required trades unions to register in order to be protected from the risk of unlimited fines. However, the decision by many trades unions not to sign up to the new legislation swiftly reduced it to a laughing stock. For the Royal Charter to function effectively as a safeguard against irresponsible press intrusion equally requires newspapers to sign up to the Charter under the provisions of the Crime and Courts Act (and thereby guard themselves against the prospect of exemplary damages). I suspect that the Telegraph Media Group and the Daily Mail and General Trust, to name but two, will simply refuse so to do. This runs the risk of any credibility in the Royal Charter being totally undermined.

To listen to Mark’s discussion on Leveson with Carolyn Quinn on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, click on the link below: