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Review of 2012: Press

21 December 2012

THERE are times when I think of print newspapers as piston-engined aircraft: unimaginably wonderful pieces of engineering, intelligent in every detail, which have no future except as rich men's toys, or workhorses where nothing else is profitable.

The Leveson inquiry, then, would be a charter for the regulation of Spitfires and Hurricanes in an age of cruise missiles. It may well turn out to be a much less important step towards setting the bounds of free speech than Lord McAlpine's decision to sue anyone with money who had defamed him by passing on rumours on Twitter.

With that said, you still wouldn't want to be strafed by a Spitfire, or a Hurricane, even if machine guns are now obsolete. The Daily Mail's 12-page pre-emptive attack on the Leveson inquiry suggested to me that the whole exercise had to be worth while. Newspapers are natural bullies, even if, like most bullies, they imagine that they are acting in self-defence.

While it is certainly true, as Max Hastings argued in the Financial Times, that most of the dreadful things uncovered by Leveson, and by The Guardian, were in fact illegal when they were done, this is not a complete argument that no laws are needed.

"What took place at News International was not a breach of press ethics but sustained criminality. No regulatory body past, present or future, could investigate and punish such wrongdoing. It was plain to some of us years ago that the police had disgracefully failed in their duty to investigate News International. Lord Justice Leveson lets them off absurdly lightly."

You might as well argue against speed cameras on the grounds that speeding is already illegal. If the people who break the laws are so powerful that no one dares cross them, then further laws diminishing their power may be necessary for the existing laws to be enforced.

Still, the pontifications of the great and good will matter less in the end than the various criminal trials of former journalists and executives, which will add so much to the delights of next year. It is in the light of those verdicts that the new press regime will be framed.

AND so to less grand matters, on which my opinion might just be better informed. This was not a good year for the predictive powers of the religious journalists. The only thing you could say for us was that we knew better than the bookies, most of the time. It was the clear and repeatedly expressed opinion of all the experts that Dr Sentamu was going to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Clippings from May now make embarrassing reading. Just as much of a shock was the failure of the draft women-bishops legisla-tion.

What both these failures suggest to me is that we are not eating enough. In particular, we are not eating enough lunches of the sort from which stories emerge. So long as the chief source of newspaper stories is what other people have written, we will be missing all the excitement and novelty of what people say face to face in conversation.

In the light of this, and of the probable future of our industry, it should be the resolution of everyone in the business to spend far more of next year at lunch.

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