Time for reform
It is somewhat ironic that the coverage of the Leveson report yet further affirms why the press must be reformed. The Sunday papers were awash with a visibly scared press prejudging the outcome of the report and warning of the end of free speech as we know it. From the Sun comparing the impending reforms, which, it must be stated, they have no prior knowledge of, to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe to the Daily Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan stating that Leveson represents the ‘liberal establishment’s’ desire to ‘smash the Tories’, the press has gone into overdrive. A breathless media is nothing new, but this coverage is tinged with genuine nervousness about the very future of their industry.
The past year has indeed signalled a seismic shift for our media, regardless of the outcome of the Leveson report tomorrow. From the fall of the News of the World last year to the resignation of the director general of the BBC this month, the British media realm has rarely been in such dire straits. Much of it, it must be added, solely of their own making. The original rationale behind Lord Leveson’s inquiry has unfortunately been lost amid the endless commentary, so it bears repeating once again; the Daily Express’ monstrous invasion of the McCanns’ privacy, the Daily Mail endlessly harassing celebrities and, of course, the systematic and industrial-scale phonehacking News International indulged in.
These examples, and many more besides, illustrate why so many feel the press should be reined in. Press freedom has never included the right to harass the parents of an abducted child, or to hack the mobile phone of a dead schoolgirl, or to bribe police officers. Leveson will at least act as a moment of collective therapy for an industry that has become wildly distorted from its original purpose. They will have to read, and report upon, in quite the most grisly detail, just what a monster they have become.
Many in Labour wish to see the press brought to its knees, primarily, if we are honest, as punishment for the years of vile coverage a predominantly centre-right press has dished out to our beloved party. Leveson represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redress the balance of the press that has so distorted public life, but state intervention should rightly make most people feel queasy. A beefed-up independent watchdog, rather than the toothless Press Complaints Commission, free of state involvement, which compels newspapers to abide by a code of conduct, backed up by substantial financial penalties and an ability to ‘name and shame’ those who err, is surely the right balance to be struck. If it has to be verified by statute, so be it.
The Rotherham, Middlesbrough and Croydon by-elections represent the latest test for Labour and where the party is battling hard to retain these three formerly safe seats. The forces swirling within Rotherham present perhaps the most precarious situation for Labour, with a MP resigning in disgrace, the farce of the Labour selection and UKIP seemingly on manoeuvres. In Croydon North well-respected Lambeth council leader Steve Reed faces Respect who are keen to add to their Bradford West scalp. But, with an inheritance of a majority of more than 16,000, Labour surely can’t lose here. One suspects, and hopes, all three will return a Labour member of parliament come Friday, but with differing mandates to draw on.
As the political and media establishment braces itself for Lord Leveson’s report the signs are that he will not shy away from robust recommendations. Self-regulation has clearly failed, indeed the prime minister hinted at such during his evidence to Leveson, and it has become tiresome for the press to so often passionately espouse principles they then simply abuse. But the right lessons have to be learnt, and not simply that of revenge.
Bradford West, by-elections, Croydon North, Daily Express, Daily Mail, Leveson inquiry, media, Middlesbrough, News of the World, phone hacking, press, Press Complaints Commission, Respect, Rotherham, Steve Reed, Telegraph, the Sun