Melanie Phillips

29 May 2012

The judgment of Leveson

Published in: Daily Mail

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Thank goodness for Michael Gove. In a bravura performance at the Leveson inquiry into press ethics, he got it absolutely right. Journalists and politicians had always been held in low regard, he said briskly; journalism was a rough old trade which hadn’t always attracted respectable characters. It was ever thus, and if journalism was to be regulated liberty would basically go down the tubes.  

Yes, bad things had been done at News International, but there was ample scope to punish such misdeeds under the law, the proper avenue for redress. The inquiry had already had a chilling effect on the press, he had said earlier this year; the danger was that although there was indeed a problem with press ethics, the possible remedy to be suggested by this inquiry was likely to prove more lethal than the disease.

Hallelujah.

Lord Justice Leveson did not appear to find Mr Gove’s contribution helpful. Indeed, the judge’s tone towards him ranged from the querulous to the incredulous. Hardly surprising: the judge has been imploring witnesses, such as Tony Blair yesterday, to help him arrive at a solution to the problem of press excesses which will simultaneously satisfy aggrieved press targets and the press itself. Yet here was the Education Secretary breezing in and crisply telling him that it couldn’t be done without harming press freedom, and in effect that the whole basis for the inquiry was fundamentally flawed.

No wonder Leveson LJ was irritated. I have some sympathy for his predicament. He is a decent, thoughtful man who is acutely aware of the dangers to press freedom from outside regulation. He has no wish whatever to go down in history as the person who killed the British press, nor to produce a report which will be quietly binned. At the same time, however, he is also aware that a lot of people are jumping up and down over press intrusions into their privacy, harassment and other similar horrors and want something to be done to stop it. And indeed, he seemed personally affronted by Gove’s apparent insouciance towards their rage and distress.

Well, I’m with Gove. This will strike many people – perhaps including Lord Justice Leveson – as preposterous, but I believe that ultimately, provided what journalists are doing is not against the law people should just put up with it. Do some journalists behave appallingly? Yes. Do they sometimes bully, snoop and intrude? Yes. Would I hate it if it was done to me? Yes (it has, actually). Do I think that therefore the press should be regulated to stop such behaviour? No, no, no. The press would then be unable to do their job of finding things out in the public interest.

Ho ho, you scoff, public interest, very droll; pruriently interested public, more like.  And yes, that’s often true. But it is simply impossible to regulate to protect the innocent without also protecting the guilty from exposure.

People find it unacceptable that the press should be the one body of people who are somehow immune from outside regulation. Actually, even that’s not true: one of the defining aspects of a profession used to be self-regulation, the guarantee of its all-important independence (a principle no less valuable for having taken a dive in recent years as the state has got more and more involved).

Anyway, the point about a free press is that, as we all know, it is the guardian of democracy. And if you look at different democracies, the press tends to reflect the particular character of each society.

Thus the French press is so bound by respect for hierarchies, not to mention protecting the sacred right of every French citizen to have a bit on the side, that it wouldn’t dream of revealing the peccadilloes of its politicians, thus leaving the citizenry in the dark about their misdeeds.

The American press, so loud and absolute in its attachment to freedom of speech, is nevertheless in practice supinely respectful towards those in power, in accordance with the deep conformism of American society (the characteristic that de Tocqueville noted centuries ago).

By contrast, the British press has always been disrespectful, rude, vulgar, scurrilous and generally outrageous, and has been scandalising the British public at least since the pamphleteers of the 18th century. That is in accordance with the British character, which has always been coarse, bawdy, bloody-minded and healthily contemptuous of authority.

And that in turn is why the British concept of liberty has been the freest in the world. Fetter the press and you therefore destroy the particular character of British liberty. Yes, you can have a press that is tidily regulated so that it no longer camps at the bottom of someone’s drive to snatch a picture; but then it won’t be Britain any more. It will be France.

Lord Justice Leveson thinks you can have both outside regulation and a free press. You can’t. It’s one or the other. He has said he is thinking of a system of press regulation not under the control of the state, parliament, government or the press. Well who’s left?  The judiciary? But whoever appoints the regulator will in effect control the press.

Lord Justice Leveson has been asked to square a circle; but as we all know, circles cannot be squared. To which he might reasonably throw up his hands in exasperation and ask how on earth therefore he is to arrive at a solution to this problem. To which the disobliging answer is – we wouldn’t have started from here.

The Prime Minister reacted to public outrage over a story about deleted messages on the hacked mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler – a story subsequently shown to be false -- by setting up a wholly uncalled for inquiry into press ethics in general. As a result, the press has been effectively put on trial, and Lord Justice Leveson has been tasked with arriving at a judgment at which King Solomon might have blanched.

But just as the baby in the famous Solomonic dispute could not have been divided in two, so the press cannot be both regulated and free. The judge will unfortunately have to decide which side he is on.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

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Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie