It is clear that Lord Justice Leveson knows his history; more interesting, in many ways, is the way that he is prepared to use it as a rhetorical weapon against his critics. The Executive Summary of his weighty volume opens with the eye-catching statement that ‘For the seventh time in less than 70 years, a report has been commissioned by the Government which has dealt with concerns about the press.’ In his concluding remarks he adds that ‘No-one can think it makes any sense to contemplate an eighth.’ The message – repeated again in his press conference, and frequently picked up in the outpouring of opinion on his findings – is clear: we must not repeat the mistakes of the past, but instead establish a new set of relationships between the press, politicians, police, and the public. History has indicated that ‘last chance saloons’ simply don’t work with customers as resourceful and well-connected as national newspapers.
The report itself contains an impressively detailed 24-page section on the history of press regulation based not only on the evidence of the many witnesses but also on the research of academics in the field, including myself. Leveson identifies several ‘strongly recurring themes’ since the 1940s. Recommendations for a rigorous system of self-regulation have repeatedly been watered down or evaded altogether. ‘The historical lessons’, Leveson notes, ‘are clear enough’, most notably ‘the inability of “self-regulation” to address the underlying problem sufficiently’ and the ‘distinct and enduring resistance to change from within the press.’
The press was not regulated until the Royal Commission on the Press, reporting in 1949, recommend that a body be established ‘to foster those tendencies which make for integrity and for a sense of responsibility to the public’. Editors and proprietors came up with a system so tame it is amazing they got away with it. Writing to one of his directors in December 1950, Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Express newspapers and a determined opponent of regulation, was surprised to find the proposed General Council of the Press ‘innocuous’. ‘The Council has no authority at all,’ he continued. ‘I can see that there is no means of imposing penalties. Am I right in all that? If I am right in all that we might possibly change our attitude to it.’ He was right: there were no penalties other than the publication by the Council of critical judgements, and that is the way the system has remained to the present. Fleet Street has consistently taken advantage of the fact that politicians, especially Conservatives, have rarely exerted much pressure on the industry to clean up its act. As negotiations on the Press Council dragged on past the Conservative election victory of 1951, Beaverbrook suggested speeding up the process: ‘I advise you to get on with the Press Council while the Tory Government is in power… It might be a good plan to batten down your Press Council in some form that would be useful but not obstructive.’ Spotting, and utilising, any signs of weakness or disunity among the supporters of reform, the press has dragged its feet so effectively that it has remained subject only to the minimum of oversight.
But there are other, less explicit, lessons that shape Leveson’s report and its recommendations. One is the need for realism when taking on the press. The failure to establish a more stringent regulatory regime in the early 1990s, when the newly-established Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was struggling to rein in tabloid excesses, was partly because Sir David Calcutt’s recommendations for reform were easily portrayed as too draconian. Calcutt’s Review of Press Self-Regulation, published in January 1993, called for the establishment of a statutory Press Tribunal, in which a judge would sit with two lay assessors to adjudicate on complaints, as well as for the introduction of three new laws against intrusion. ‘Sir David’s proposals’, Leveson notes wryly, ‘were seen as a step too far by even the most adamantine critics of the press’. As a result, it became very difficult to achieve a consensus about the way forward.
Leveson has not made the same mistake of over-playing his hand. His knowledge of history means that he is acutely aware that ‘freedom of the press’ is a potent rallying cry, and that there is a deep-seated anxiety at Westminster about anything that can be portrayed as state ‘censorship’. Leveson has gone out of his way to argue that his proposals do not amount to ‘statutory regulation’, even though they will be characterised as such; instead, he defines his solution as ‘independent regulation of the press organised by the press, with a statutory verification process’. His recommendations are, in essence, a historically-informed balancing act: statutory underpinning to ensure compliance from a perennially backsliding press, but with sufficient safeguards to prevent Parliament or the Government directly restricting the publication of material or intervening in the regulatory process.
Even this compromise position seems too much for the Prime Minister, who resorted to the well-worn ‘slippery slope’ argument and cautioned against ‘crossing the Rubicon’ of state control. Leveson himself will be under few illusions about the difficulties of maintaining the political momentum to implement his recommendations. Another historical lesson he highlights is that the ‘window of opportunity for reform’ is short. What is different this time, though, is that the campaign for reform is more organised and media savvy, than ever before. It has shrewdly engaged the public through the involvement of ‘victims’ of the press, such as the Dowlers and the McCanns, as well as celebrities, such as Hugh Grant. Mr Cameron’s immediate declaration of opposition to a statutory underpinning for the regulatory regime is a serious blow to Leveson and his supporters, but it will be difficult to kick this report into the long grass. A tougher form of regulation is undoubtedly coming, but it would be foolish to underestimate the press’s ability to wriggle out of its responsibilities. I wouldn’t yet bet against that eighth report.
This opinion piece originally appeared at History & Policy (December 2012), http://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion/opinion_100.html
Adrian Bingham is a Senior Editor of History & Policy. His research was quoted in volume 1 of the Leveson report.
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