At the end of the editors’ meeting in 10 Downing St today, there was an awkward moment when someone asked if the past hour had been on or off the record. There was something odd about the idea of a bunch of journalists keeping something secret, and anyway there was anyway not much to reveal: it was just the start of a discussion. But a very important one that could yet decide whether Britain retains its ancient tradition of press freedom.
David Cameron restated his position: that he’s instinctively against statutory regulation, but wants to see self-regulation along the lines of the Leveson Report. And could the newspaper industry deliver that?
Something else was clear from the meeting: the test was not so much if it passed Cameron’s personal approval, but whether he could get it past parliament where there is (at present) a majority in favour of statutory intervention. That's a harder hurdle. With Labour threatening a vote in January, it might well come down to whether the press has persuaded a majority of MPs (including the George Eustices of this world) that statutory regulation is a bad idea.
But for all the drama, there is not much distance between what the industry has already proposed and what Lord Leveson outlined. It’s certainly not a gap so large that it would need parliamentary regulation to close it.
But here’s the thing: who speaks for the newspapers? One of the editors told Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, that this is not an industry that is used to collaboration. And that’s putting it politely. The journalists around that table get up every morning dreaming up ways of scooping each other, and producing a newspaper that’s demonstrably better than anyone else’s. They may respect each other individually, but their day job is war. Tony Gallagher, editor of the Daily Telegraph, said on Twitter that it felt like the summoning of the five families of the Mafia. I can see what he means: the British press is the most fiercely-competitive industries in the world. In which other country in the world does the consumer have a dozen papers to choose from when they walk into a newsagent?
All this is great for democracy. No one can ‘square the press’ in Britain; there are too many publications who dislike each other too much. The rivalry is the reason why the hacking scandal was exposed in the first place. But this rivalry may be one of the biggest practical obstacles now. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger: whom does Maria Miller speak to when she wants to call the British press? Who would be the union rep of the five families? Who is Fleet St’s equivalent of the BBC Director General? There isn’t one, which of course is the very point of Fleet St. The British press is almost comically incapable of colluding over anything — which is (to me) why Fleet St is one of the best things about Britain.
But precisely this quality now makes the press more vulnerable to attack. It encourages MPs who say that Fleet St’s failure to agree something collectively means that the state needs to foist something upon them.