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After the report, the subversion

07 December 2012

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON must wonder by now whether he was too soft on politicians in his report on press malpractice. After several weeks in which the mainstream press, frightened by the prospect of statutory regulation, got its retaliation in first, Lord Leveson had to listen to the Prime Minister dismissing a central element of his remedy within hours of the report's publication. But then the victims spoke out, and were joined by the Labour Party, Nick Clegg, and even several Tory backbenchers. Realising that his peremptory rejection of statutory underpinning for a new press regulator was under threat, David Cameron summoned various media figures to Downing Street on Tuesday, urging them to come up with an alternative, and quickly. He had shot down legal interference; now it was their turn to produce something that looked as fearsome - but which, of course, would not be.

The premise on which the inquiry was set up, after years of ineffectual self-regulation, and frequent final warnings, was that the press is not capable of policing itself. Few bodies in the commercial world are, and the press, of course, can generally avoid the ultimate encouragement that others have to act, i.e. exposure in the press. In relying on the media barons to put their house in order, perhaps Mr Cameron has suffered one of those lapses in memory so frequent among those appearing before Lord Justice Leveson and his interrogator, Robert Jay QC; but everyone else can remember listening with horrified fascination as witness after witness gave evidence of manipulation, misrepresentation, and general bullying by organisations that clearly felt themselves to be above the law, protected by their control of the complaints procedure, and by their cosy relationship with compliant politicians.

There are two lines of defence for a newspaper: a good reputation or a good company lawyer. All but the richest organisations must rely on the former, and this involves treating the people whom they write about fairly, so that when there is a dispute - as there must inevitably be if a newspaper is to contain more than PR hand-outs - a basic level of honour can be assumed by both sides during its resolution. As the Leveson hearings demonstrated, this is an unnatural assumption for the handful of newspapers that have become too powerful. A regulatory body that is both independent and has the teeth of statutory backing is now the only way forward. The matter of a free press is too important to leave to a few proprietors and a chummy prime minister. The question asked by Baroness O'Neill hangs in the air: "If you can't trust those who inform you about others, then whom can you trust?"

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