Why doesn’t Leveson pass Cameron’s “bonkers” test? And would Ofcom really be a “flawed” backstop?

[David Cameron to Andrew Marr] “We must wait for what Lord Leveson says … I don’t want to pre-judge it. We don’t want heavy-handed state intervention. We’ve got to have a free press.”

Backing up with legislation the self regulation of an industry that has consistently failed to be harsh to itself hardly qualifies as failing Cameron’s “bonkers” test.

Labour – from the advantage of Opposition – are asking for the Leveson recommendations to be implemented in full. Ed Miliband:

After 70 years and seven reports which have gone nowhere, now is the time to act. The case is compelling. The evidence is overwhelming. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make change the public can trust.

The Lib Dems back legislation: Nick Clegg:

I have thought long and hard about this. I’m a liberal, I don’t make laws for the sake of it – and certainly not when it comes to the press.

Part of me wonders whether Cameron’s reluctance for statutory control is more to do with re-election than worrying about political interference in the press. Not that there are votes to be won or lost on the principle of how the press are regulated and held to account. Rather the national press would find Cameron an easy – and prolonged – target if he took the legislative approach willingly. While he’s not guaranteed an easy ride or fulsome support at the next Westminster (or European) election, being seen to be too enthusiastic might make the editors restless.

Overnight news broke that the culture secretary Maria Miller is keen that the newspapers have another chance to pitch a more “Levesonian” model of regulation. Having failed their homework exercise, they’ve been given the model answer and told to copy it out and resubmit their books for remarking?

As Readers Editor, Paul Connolly wrote a piece about Leveson’s conclusions in today’s Belfast Telegraph.

The problem for me is that he reaches the wrong central conclusion. Statute, whether a dab or something more, is fundamentally flawed and runs against hundreds of years of UK democratic tradition.

That’s not to say that the Leveson inquiry has not had its benefits. Ethics has now moved centre-stage in journalism, which is where it should have been all along. The outrageous behaviour of certain tabloids has been exposed and halted.

Where should we go from here? I support the ‘super-watchdog’ approach of Lords Hunt and Black. An independent body with an investigatory arm and powers to fine up to £1m.

However, as currently constituted, I don’t think it’s tough enough. I would insist that serving editors do not sit on the main board and any financing board. The danger would remain, as Sir Brian Leveson so colourfully says, that the industry would be “marking its own homework”.

I would allow ex-editors to serve on it – their expertise is critical – but not anyone receiving a salary from a newspaper group, or indeed anyone who has worked for one within three years.

A familiar viewpoint expressed over the past hours and weeks by Belfast Telegraph management, including editor Mike Gilson at the recent Belfast Media Festival. [watch the video] Paul Connolly went on to write:

Leveson’s belief that Ofcom should serve as the backstop legislator is also flawed. Far too much power would be invested in a body that is answerable on a weekly basis to government.

What would be so flawed about Ofcom?

Broadcasters live with significantly more regulation than the print media, and are answerable to the same “libel, breach of privacy, confidence and data protection” law. Ofcom don’t get hauled in before a Select Committee when radio or TV programmes breach the broadcasting code? Even when there are thousands of complaints and questions are raised in Parliament.

I understand the press have travelled along a road to freedom and their fear of returning to a situation where they are under political influence. (Maybe not a good moment some politicians’ “too close relationship with the press” and the influence that both sides must have been able to exert on each other …) But other than mergers and acquisitions – which normally get batted across to the Competition Commission – I don’t see broadcasters complaining about being regulated by “a body that is answerable on a weekly basis to government”.

Does Paul Connolly not protest too much about the Ofcom backstop? I asked, and he replied:

Basically, you can’t compare newspapers and broadcasters; they’re like apples and oranges.

The reason why broadcasters are licensed is because they necessarily have to make use of airwave spectrum and the government long ago decided that this spectrum must be licensed.

I would imagine this was for two reasons – to keep control on broadcasters’ actions and to raise money. Also, when the BBC was set up it was a monopoly and so it had to pledge to the politicians of the day that it would be impartial. Newspapers, of course, are free to be partisan.

I have major issues about the political pressures upon Ofcom. Its Director (the current one had previously been a leading Labour figure) meets with the Culture Secretary every Monday. All Department press releases are seen by the Culture Department the week before. Fiercely independent? Hardly.

With regards to the BBC; its regulation, as we have seen recently, is little short of disastrous. One of the reasons for this is that it sometimes comes under intense pressure from governments – remember Andrew Gilligan and the Iraq ‘dodgy dossier’ and how Greg Dyke was forced out by Labour’s inner circle.

The BBC has acknowledged that it turns to newspapers to make its case on those occasions when it comes under government pressure. The BBC has admitted it would never have published the MPs expenses story, for example. Also, having the BBC Trust as both cheerleader and regulator is just plain wrong as well as being ineffective.

That’s the danger of statutory regulation – creeping self-censorship and timidity slowly pervade the system and neuter genuine independence.

I’d still argue that the new regulator – son of PCC – will be at arms length from Ofcom, itself at arms length (even if meeting weekly) from DCMS. So it’s a weak relationship that’s competing for time in Ofcom with telecoms, spectrum, and broadcasters and unlikely to have many staff dedicated to it in an organisation that is always under pressure to shrink. While the BBC struggles to keep its head out of the spotlight, ITV and the other major broadcasters have relatively few public spats with their regulator. And the newspaper regulator will be one further step removed from Ofcom.

If the new press regulator’s finances are independent and the board and chair are strong but independent it could work. In fact, they had better make it work. Otherwise politicians will scale up the statutory control and tighten the penalties further.

The onus is on both the press and the politicians to play by the rules.

Local and regional journalism were consistently awarded high praise throughout the near two thousand pages of Leveson’s report and should have little to fear by the legislative backstop. Small but significant elements of the national press were the main culprits “wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people” and have a lot of work to do to earn (back) public trust.

Politicians – and their special advisers – will be on their guard for quite some time to avoid repeating the kind of perceptions that built up around Jeremy Hunt and the News International takeover bid for BSkyB. Where parties unite – however reluctantly – there are few votes to be lost. Where parties take a risk on grasping a distinctive policy, they run the risk of second guessing the wrong result.

Any sign of political interference will make it onto the front page

If the press have nothing to hide, then they should have nothing to fear from Leveson’s recommendations. If they’d managed to come up with significantly stronger suggestions over the last year, then perhaps their argument for sole self-regulation would have been more convincing. And if politicians can trust themselves to have a healthy respect for the press, they’ve nothing to fear from making the penalties for stepping out of line as tough as possible.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.