There are two obvious and immediate responses to the Leveson Report. The first is congratulations. It is awesomely long and formidably argued: a remarkable achievement in such a short time. The second follows from the first. The report requires close reading and serious thought. I have not had time to do either as yet. That will be true of most commentators. As there is no need for a rush to judgment, it would be folly to indulge in one. If major changes are proposed in the relationship between the press and the law, it is crucial that we get it right: far less important that we do it fast. David Cameron had longer than most people to read the document, as was apparent in his cautious, lucid and thoughtful response.
That tone ought to prevail, and may eventually do so, though no-one should count on it. It would be desirable for any changes to be made on as consensual a basis as possible. Today, the press is chastened. Crimes were committed, There was am atmosphere of cynicism and corruption. Because of the electronic media, the press is in economic jeopardy. Because of some journalists' misdemeanours, it is also in moral jeopardy. Even so, free newspapers have a vital role in a free society. Although some of the victims of the excesses might be tempted, it would not be wise to exploit the press's weakness in order to punish it. Much better to invite cooperation to create a system of self-regulation that would work.
There is a further problem about the statutory route. Fraser Nelson of the Spectator has already said that he and his magazine would defy any such law, and devil take the consequences. Free the Old Queen Street One. Fraser would make a formidable martyr. Although he might seem to have little in common with John Wilkes, he would be a good choice to raise the standard of his heroic exemplar. Others would be emboldened to follow. No-one would wish to see a system of statutory regulation which began by imprisoning the Editor of the Spectator. After a fast read of the relevant section, I was unclear as to exactly what form the proposed statutory regulation would take, or how it would work. If the press as a body refused to comply, I do not see how it could work.
This does not mean that the press should be complacent. Guy Black and David Hunt have been working on a strengthened system of self-regulation. It would have teeth: the power to censure and to fine. There is one problem. What if an important newspaper – the Daily Express, say – refused to join? Should all the press be compelled to belong? Difficult. Given the problems of enforcement, there may be no alternative to a voluntary system of regulation, whose ultimate powers are are moral: whose ultimate sanction is shame.
Apropos of sanctions, the current law is not toothless. Be ye never so high: the law is above you. It may be that some senior figures in News International forgot that adage, and will have leisure to remind themselves of it, in a prison cell. It appears that a climate of lawlessness was created, in which important figures concluded that inconvenient laws did not apply to them. If so, they now know better – as does everyone in journalism, and will do for many decades to come. There was once a three-hour essay question in the history finals at Oxford: '"The Middle Ages was good at law but not so hot at order". Discuss'. For the Middle Ages, read the early twenty-first century. The practices which have aroused so much anger were all illegal, so let us enforce the existing law.
That said, there is an argument, not so much for a new law as for the revival of an old one: criminal libel. Some of the libels vented on the McCann family were so vile that a mere monetary penalty is inadequate. A prison sentence for those responsible, which could include hyper-active proprietors, would be justified and salutary. Equally, the sub judice laws need to be more rigorously enforced. Some of the tabloids behaved disgracefully towards Christopher Jefferies and the editors were lucky not to go to gaol. In general, however, the existing laws would have dealt with most of the problems, if the constabulary had been properly alert. I suspect that Lord Justice Leveson may have been too kind to the police. Their record was not as good as it should have been.
So what should happen next? First, a long debate, in the press and in Parliament, which should rise above partisanship. That will not be easy, for there are a lot of disappointed Labour MPs. They wanted revenge on Rupert Murdoch for his role in extolling Thatcherism. They had been hoping for a smoking gun: indeed, a smoking armoury – evidence of quasi-criminal collusion between David Cameron and the Murdoch press. That was always a childish fantasy. (Nick Clegg has a similar fantasy: a successful, popular British press which is not Euro-sceptic.) One might hope that when disappointments cool and fantasies dissipate, everyone will think clearly about practicable changes.
But even in the season of Santa Claus, we should not over-indulge in hope. Everyone thinking clearly? That also sounds like a fantasy. My prediction is that after a lot of ill-temper and unclear thought, the changes envisaged by Milords Black and Hunt will ultmately prevail.