Watching the Watchmen: 24 Hours On From The Leveson Verdict

For the past few months the British papers, politicians and establishment have waited with (not so) baited breath for Lord Justice Leveson to report the conclusions of his inquiry.

Released yesterday, the 2000 page report may have put the papers, politicians, police and interested members of the public out of their misery – but it certainly didn’t quell debate.

The central issue that split commentators, and maybe the most important conclusion expected of the inquiry, is the question of how to fix the press regulation system. Few disputed the fact that it was broken. After the phone hacking scandal and in particular the Millie Dowler affair, it was easy for many to argue that self-regulation by newspaper editors was ineffective at best, criminally negligent at worst.

But unlike other industries, the papers shouted, the press’ job depends on independence. Any form of regulation controlled by politicians would be tantamount to censorship, they argued. All who believe in a free press, in democracy and in the triumph of good over evil should fight tooth and nail to prevent the creation of a statutory press regulator, they seemed to say.

In the end, Lord Justice Leveson’s report has recommended the creation of a ‘new and tough’ but also independent regulator. This body would be completely independent of both sitting editors and politicians. It would be at once ‘self-regulatory’ in that Fleet Street professionals would judge newspaper’s ethical conduct – but it would also be underpinned by legislation designed to assess whether it was doing its job properly as a regulator. And to add legitimacy, it would be recognised and checked by Ofcom.

Could this be the happy medium that ends all debate? Freedom of speech is preserved. Tick. Ethical standards of press conduct are enforced. Tick. Who could possibly object? What is left to argue about?

Let us not get ahead of ourselves. After reading the report, the disagreement between the Prime Minister and his Deputy was so great they decided to comment as two separate parties, rather than one government – a move the Labour Party Deputy Leader Harriet Harman called an ‘unprecedented procedure’.

David Cameron praised many of the inquiry’s conclusions and accepted the need for better press regulation. However the Prime Minister voiced ‘serious concerns’ about the call for statutory underpinning of the new regulator as this, he said, would be ‘crossing a Rubicon’ of writing press regulation into the laws of the land.

Both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband endorsed Leveson’s recommendations wholeheartedly. Both Coalition partner and Opposition Leader pitched their position as aimed at protecting ‘people like the Dowlers’. Faced with the embarrassment of appearing more Opposition than Coalition, Nick Clegg emphasised the validity of the Prime Minister’s position, despite disagreeing with it…

But the Coalition’s split over Lord Leveson’s recommendations seems to have ensured that the debate will rage on in the weeks and months to come. Commentators have been quick to pick camps, and questions abound – will there be open debate in the House as Ed Miliband called for? Will there be a vote? Will it be free or will there be a three-line whip? When will it take place? What changes will there be to press regulation in the meantime…? It all seemed set to descend into an unruly mess.

24 hours on from Lord Leveson delivering his report, we are still no closer to knowing what the future of press regulation in this country will look like.

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