Leveson Inquiry

Leveson Inquiry Speech, Friday 11th January 2013

My Lords, almost everything that there is to say has already been said, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, so I will just concentrate on two points. First, there is the ingenuity of Leveson, which recognises that voluntary self-regulation via the almost toothless Press Complaints Commission has run its course. Therefore, any successor system of self-regulation needs to give confidence that it will not be toothless – hence the need for legislation to guarantee the teeth. I think that is the main thrust.

The truly ingenious feature of Leveson is his proposal to secure publishers’ participation in a toughened system of self-regulation by means of incentives rather than compulsion. These incentives are cost-shifting, exemplary damages and the opportunity for a newspaper to consult the new regulatory body when faced with a difficult decision as to whether or not to publish. All these incentives hang together; it is a very coherent structure. But that structure will not work without an arbitration scheme or the necessary statutory measures to allow exemplary damages and double cost-shifting, always at the court’s discretion.

That is the Leveson alternative to giving the victim of a damaging story the legal right of prior notification. In his evidence to Leveson, Max Mosley said:

“Once information is made public, it can never ever be made private again. Therefore the only effective remedy is to stop it becoming public”.

The Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions found that there was,

“widespread support for prior notification becoming a requirement for editors intending to run a story which compromises an individual’s private life”,

and that this should be part of the code of practice for the new regulatory body.

Leveson does not concede the right of prior notification, which is what this group of witnesses was asking for, but he suggests a way in which it will benefit proprietors to seek advice from the regulator before publishing a potentially damaging story, with an arbitration system that, in the event of publication, will make reference to the advice that has been given. A Desmond newspaper could, if it wished, remain entirely outside the system, but if it broke the law – on defamation, privacy or harassment – it would risk exemplary damages. It would also be liable to pay the costs of both sides in a court case, whether it won or lost. In a nutshell, it would be much more expensive for a newspaper to stay outside the system, even though it would be allowed to do so.

Leveson’s aim is admirable but limited. It is an attempt to apply a legal dressing to a cultural wound. I do not accept that every country gets the press it deserves-we deserve a better press, I think-but a number of broader factors explain the press that we have got. The first is the politicians. The point has been made, but I think it needs reinforcement. I speak as an historian. The politicians have built up a partly malign press for their own political purposes. That has been the main factor in the rise of Rupert Murdoch and News International. As the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, pointed out, it was Margaret Thatcher who allowed the Murdoch build-up, because she knew that his titles would support her. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, that Murdoch was equally ardently pursued by Tony Blair for exactly the same reason.

[Lord Prescott: Not by me.]

In his memoirs, which I quote chapter and verse, Blair admits that he made a “Faustian pact” with Murdoch-could anything be more transparent than that?-but he does not reveal what Faust’s obligations were in this pact. Later he complained that the press was a “feral beast”. Did he not understand that if you dine with the devil you should use a very long spoon? Perhaps he did not care.
That is one source of the malaise that we have all been complaining about. The point there is that a proper enforcement of anti-monopoly legislation would have prevented the extensive Murdoch takeover. That is why I believe that no one company or individual should be allowed to own more than 20% of newspaper titles.

But that is not the only thing. We now live in a culture that is much more interested in the personalities of our leaders than in policies, possibly because the public have a well founded suspicion that a great deal of political debate is phoney. The demand to expose corruption in dark places has turned into an insatiable desire to know more and more about the private lives and griefs of public figures-and even non-public figures. We all enjoy a bit of prying, but we are the first civilisation to have turned enjoyment of prying into a right to know-that is, to raise it to the status of a political principle.

That is the real ethical Rubicon that we have crossed. There is no easy solution to it. I do not think that there is any purely legal remedy for such ethical confusions. Leveson has done everything that he can to protect privacy, so his report deserves our strong support. We should be especially vigilant to ensure that the recommendations are carried out in their full integrity because, as I have said, they all hang together.