In 1644 John Milton appealed to parliament in the Areopagitica to rescind its order to bring publishing under government control by creating official censors. I wonder what he would make of Lord Justice Leveson’s report, due to be published next week, which is expected to re-introduce statutory control of the press into English law after a lapse of centuries.
The wonder is that it has happened. Thirteen months ago, as the Leveson inquiry was gearing up, the Lord Chief Justice, Igor Judge, made a moving and passionate speech defending the independence of the press. He cited John Wilkes’s assertion that ‘the liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton’ and suggested that, despite the apparently criminal behaviour of the News of the World, a more robust form of self-regulation was still preferable to statutory control of newspapers. While not wishing to pre-empt Lord Justice Leveson, Lord Judge emphasised that he had personally selected him to chair the inquiry.
Since he was so strikingly in favour of self-regulation — a point of view certainly not shared by every senior judge — it is a fair bet that he chose someone whom he thought shared his opinion on the matter. Lord Justice Leveson of one year ago was almost certainly not a man for statutory control. Something has changed him. Some have suggested that his prolonged immersion in revelations about the wilder behaviour of the tabloid press — for example, its rough treatment of the McCanns after the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine — hardened his heart. It may be so, though in fact most of the excesses were already known about, and Express Newspapers had paid the couple over half a million pounds in damages. Moreover, the most shocking allegation against the News of the World, which directly led to the setting up of the inquiry, has turned out not to be true. Police now say the paper’s journalists did not delete the voicemails of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and give her parents cause to hope she might still be alive, though it seems they did later listen to them.
So while the stories of press misbehaviour may have weighed on Lord Justice Leveson, he has heard little which should have surprised him. What really changed his thinking? I suspect it was not so much the horrific nature of the evidence as the brilliant lobbying of pro-statutory control groups, including the leading lights of the notably well-funded Hacked Off and leftish media academics, all of whom have been circling the Leveson inquiry as determinedly as a pack of coyotes eyeing up a promising carcass. By contrast, until recently the opponents of statutory control have been neither as assiduous nor as well-organised. It was only last month that British publishers belatedly set up Free Speech Network as a counterweight to Hacked Off.
Lord Justice Leveson’s views must also have been affected by the political complexion of the six so-called assessors visited on Leveson by unidentified Whitehall mandarins. Of the six, only one — George Jones, ex-political editor of the Daily Telegraph — can be confidently identified as a Tory. None of them has ever worked for a national tabloid newspaper. His Lordship’s small court has been comprised of people who mostly share a similar political outlook, and have very little knowledge of the popular press, and probably even less sympathy with it. This hardly seems just or equitable. One assessor, Sir David Bell, is a particularly stern critic of the tabloids as the founding chairman of the Media Standards Trust. He is said to have spent more time at the Leveson inquiry than any of his colleagues.
When last Friday’s Daily Mail unleashed a broadside against Sir David it was instantly dismissed by bien-pensant observers such as my old friend Professor Roy Campbell-Greenslade of the Guardian as conspiracy-obsessed and verging on the lunatic. In fact Richard Pendlebury’s huge piece shone a torch where no one had previously troubled to look. Sir David’s Media Standards Trust spawned Hacked Off, whose generous funding is somewhat opaque. He is also linked to Common Purpose, an apparently leftwardly inclined group which runs training courses for the great and the good and whose founding chief executive, Julia Middleton, is also reported to abhor the unruly press. The point is not that Sir David is a fiend in human form. By some accounts, he is a perfectly agreeable chap. But by no stretch of the imagination is he neutral, and it is incredible that a man with such prejudices should have been put at the centre of a supposedly even-handed inquiry into the press.
I fear the Mail’s disclosures came too late to affect Lord Justice Leveson’s thinking. They might have some influence on David Cameron, though. Leveson may become his worse problem, potentially more divisive even than Europe. The Lib Dem and Labour leaderships and a sizeable rump of the Tory party (71 Conservative MPs have recently declared themselves) want statutory regulation. On the other side are most Tory MPs and probably a majority of the Cabinet as well as the press, not least the Sun, Mail and Daily Telegraph, whose wholehearted support Mr Cameron needs before the next election. His former unhealthily close relations with Rupert Murdoch, and the media tycoon’s vampish lieutenant Rebekah Brooks, will inevitably make him vulnerable to charges of bad faith if he tries to kick Leveson’s recommendations into the long grass.
But he can’t sashay out of this one — presuming that Lord Justice Leveson does propose statutory regulation. There is no halfway house. The choice is between self-regulation with much sharper teeth than before, or any form of statutory control with parliament ultimately in charge. Of course no one imagines the sort of censors against whom John Milton inveighed. Statutory regulation might well be light-handed and benign for the foreseeable future. But it would have been established that the legislature, which really means the executive, regulates and authorises the press, and none of us can know whether this novel principle might not one dark day be used to muzzle it.
Stephen Glover is a columnist for the Daily Mail.