David Frum

03.18.13

Phone Hacking: The Scandal that Changed Everything for the British Press

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images ()

Little attended here, Britain has been moving toward a new scheme for regulating the press in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

Dan Hodges in the Telegraph comments:

[W]hat impact will the new Royal Charter actually have? I think it will be twofold. First, the “victims” will obtain a significant measure of the protection they have sought. The practice of phone hacking is over. Newspapers will be wary of the stigma of being first to fall foul of the new regime. And the new penalties will ensure that those that aren’t simply can’t afford to.

Second, whatever Hacked Off and the politicians may say, some legitimate journalism will now be curtailed. It’s obviously impossible to peer into the crystal ball and foretell which stories will not see the light of day. But we can hazard a guess. For example, on Friday Gary Dobson, convicted of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, finally dropped his appeal, and confessed his guilt. It’s difficult to see how the Daily Mail’s campaign which ultimately led to his conviction could have happened in the present climate. For one, the information from inside the police on the failings of the initial investigation would probably not have been forthcoming. And the Mail would almost certainly not have been able to take the gamble of directly accusing Dobson of being guilty under the new Charter framework.

David Hencke, who broke the cash for questions story, is on record as saying that he doubts that story would have been possible, had the Leveson recommendations been in force. And it’s very possible this paper's publication of the record of MPs' expenses may have been deemed too high risk.

But there is also one other problem with the “compromise” that was struck in the early hours of this morning. Over the next few months and years, it will come to be seen as just that: a compromise.

Today it is in the interest of everyone – the press aside – to paint the agreement as a historic one. But by this time next year, I suspect perceptions will be starting to change. As some of the inevitable problems arise with the implementation of the new Royal Charter, the compromise will come to be seen as a “messy” one. Over time the “historic moment” will be viewed – and described – as a missed opportunity. Then one day someone will ask “who is actually happy with the current system?”. And given that no one was happy in the first place, not a single hand will be raised. At which point, as sure as night follows day, people will start to say “We need to finish what Leveson started.”

Trust me. This is not the end of the affair. No one is happy with the Leveson deal. Not the victims, not the politicians, not the campaigners, not the press. And because of that, nothing, really, has been resolved.

The first foot has been placed on the south bank of the Rubicon. Watch and wait.