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Brexit, Leveson II and why 2019 could be the year for press reform

On no fewer than five occasions in the course of his inquiry into the press in 2011-12, Brian Leveson expressed to witnesses and the public a concern that his report might end up gathering dust on the second shelf of a professor of journalism’s bookcase – nothing more than historical evidence of wasted effort.

Today the key legislative incentive for his regulatory scheme has still to be put into operation, while the second part of his inquiry has been cancelled. And the High Court has dismissed an attempt by victims of press abuse to force the government to keep the promises made to them at the time of the inquiry.

Does this mean that, after six years, the judge’s fears have been realised? Emphatically no. While no one could deny that the corporate press – by which I mean the main national and regional newspaper groups – have so far managed to avoid independent, effective regulation of the kind the Leveson report recommended, it’s very clear that they are hanging on by their fingertips.

Unfinished business: Lord Leveson. EPA/Lukas Coch

Never before, on my reading of the history, have they been so politically isolated. Only their intimate alliance with the current Conservative leadership protects them – and while it has been enough so far to enable them to block the Leveson reforms, we need to remember that this is a minority government and a fractured party.

Among the other parties in the House of Commons, meanwhile, there is a powerful consensus in favour of change, and the Leveson reforms – the fruit of a careful, year-long inquiry, and with most of the necessary pieces now in place – are the only game in town. In other words, unless these particular tendencies in the Tory party somehow remain in power indefinitely, meaningful change is extremely likely. It may not happen today or tomorrow, but it’s on its way.

The Commons vote on Leveson II last May was revealing. Though the press mounted the most blustering and hysterical campaign it could manage, urging MPs to back the cancellation, the majority on the day was just nine votes – one of the government’s closest shaves at that time.

Why, you may ask, if my description of the slender support for the press industry’s position is correct, was there a majority at all? The answer is Brexit.

Balance of power

In the Conservative party, the debate broke along Brexit lines with Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith backing cancellation while Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve were against. Clarke and Grieve both rebelled, voting with Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and other smaller parties, but the government was saved by two things.

First there were the numerous Remainer Tories who favoured Leveson II but preferred to save their rebellions for a vote directly relating to Brexit. And second there was the Democratic Unionist Party, which put its pro-Brexit alliance with Theresa May before its longstanding commitment to press reform.

What has Leveson II to do with Brexit? Defeat on the issue would have undermined the May government and the Brexiteers needed that government to deliver Brexit (or at least, so it appeared to them at the time). And the Brexiteers also needed the press, which (again, at that time) was strongly pro-Brexit and fairly strongly pro-May. If those papers had suddenly found themselves facing a public inquiry into past criminal activities their willingness to back the May government would have been tested – probably beyond breaking point.

Culture secretary Matt Hancock in May 2018 announcing the government’s decision not to pursue part two of the Leveson Inquiry. PA/PA Archive/PA Images

The shaky foundations of the press victory were obvious, and one of those foundations – the alliance between the Conservative leadership and the DUP – already seems to have crumbled away. So even if this parliament survives a couple more years I doubt if the industry’s leadership are confident they could pull off the same result again.

Need for reform

Could there be another vote? Look at it this way. The conduct of the press shows no sign of improving. Trust in national newspaper journalism is appallingly low. And IPSO, the non-Leveson regulator, is – in my opinion – a disgrace. As toothless as its discredited predecessor, the Press Complaints Commission, it is a captive of the industry that manifestly fails to uphold journalistic standards or protect the public from disinformation, cruelty and abuse. So the need for reform remains as obvious as ever.

Parliament has other things on its mind for the moment – but 2019 could bring possibilities. The May government seems eager to create new public subsidies for the press – but MPs might wish to ensure that public money only found its way to news organisations that were independently and effectively regulated along the lines spelled out by Leveson in his report.

Another possibility relates to the civil courts, where – though you may not have read about it in the press – a new scandal is unfolding about phone hacking. People continue to sue papers over this and, thanks to forced disclosure and to whistleblowers, shocking information is emerging about what went on and who got away with it – exactly the sort of information that Leveson II was meant to uncover. If the revelations continue, parliament might eventually feel it has to act.

In short, something may well come up, but even if it does not there is always the inevitable general election. And whether that comes sooner or later, the press industry knows that all its eggs now reside in one very battered Tory basket.

Before then, if you need to know what all this is about, the entire inquiry archive is now available online, fully searchable and freshly curated, as – a rich new resource for researchers, students and the general public.

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