Cameron on the Rocks
Can David Cameron keep his coalition together as they feud over the inquiry’s report? By Peter Jukes.
It’s finally arrived.
Four chunky volumes, light blue covers, and running up to 2,000 pages—longer than War and Peace—the Leveson Inquiry report landed with a loud thud on the desk of Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday. A day later, at the Queen Elizabeth II conference center over the road from Westminster, journalists waited nervously for the tome to be made public, like errant school kids waiting for a dressing down from a stern headmaster.
The “feral” British press, renowned for its raucous and competitive nature, was indeed given a stern smack on the wrist for its culture, ethics, and practices in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal that shook Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. empire. Lord Justice Leveson excoriated Fleet Street for “a recklessness in prioritizing sensational stories,” of “wreaking havoc with people’s lives,” of targeting the children and families of celebrities whose “important personal moments are destroyed." He went on condemn “a willingness to deploy covert surveillance … and deception.”
For News Corp., with dozens of its journalists arrested, senior executives from its News International subsidiary facing trial next year, and an ongoing FBI investigation into allegations of bribing foreign officials, the report was a mixed blessing. Not surprisingly, Leveson has withering words about the practices of what had been Murdoch's bestselling English-language Sunday tabloid. “Most responsible corporate entities would be appalled that employees were or could be involved in the commission of crime in order to further their business,” Leveson wrote. “Not so at the News of the World.” Hidden in the bowels of the rest of the report are also damning judgments of the corporate governance of the parent company. In a typically understated putdown, Leveson says of James Murdoch’s testimony, “There are aspects of the account of Mr. Murdoch that cause me some concern.” And in a direct swipe at Rupert himself for not reading a critical ruling over a privacy and libel case, Leveson writes: “It says something about the degree to which his organization engages with the ethical directions of its newspapers.”
The report's central thrust, however, is that the Press Complaints Commission, or PCC, Britain’s voluntary regulatory body for newspapers and magazines, is “not fit for purpose” in helping those who have had their lives destroyed by such intrusion.
After yearlong public inquiry, nearly 400 verbal testimonies, and 300 written submissions, none of this was particularly controversial or new. Leveson was already expected to make recommendations for a replacement for PCC. He did, in some lawyerly detail, suggesting the body should be “constituted in law” but not a statutory regulator. For a few moments on Twitter, everyone thought they’d won: there would still be self-regulation, but it would have a compulsory element. But before the practical consequences could sink in, Lord Justice Leveson concluded: “The ball moves back into the politicians’ court—they must decide who guards the guardians.” He then walked off the stage, without answering questions, for a trip to Australia, leaving a bombshell for Parliament to defuse.
A year ago, when setting up the Leveson Inquiry, David Cameron said he would implement the recommendations of its final report if they weren’t “bonkers.” Yet in a statement before Parliament soon after Leveson’s press conference, the prime minister repudiated this central recommendation that an independent regulator should have legal backing.
As The Daily Beast predicted on Monday, this forced a split with his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. In an unprecedented move, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made his own speech to the House, diverging from his Conservative boss by urging an act of Parliament to enshrine a new regulator, independent from both government and the press owners, and “recognized in law.” Moments later, Mark Lewis, the lawyer who represented many victims of phone hacking, including the parents of Milly Dowler, the murdered teenager whose phone was hacked by News of the World, reminded journalists that Cameron had said that his own standard would be one that satisfied the victims. Cameron called it the “Dowler Test” and Lewis said he had failed it.
Cameron’s stance will be popular among proprietors and Fleet Street journalists. Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of Index on Censorship, a London-based organization that advocates for freedom of expression, told The Daily Beast that Leveson’s proposals for a new regulator with a statutory underpinning “went too far.” But the report also suggested that new legislation should implement a British version of the First Amendment—"an explicit duty on the government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press.”
More importantly, though, with over 80 Conservative MPs having previously written in support of Leveson, and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats also in favor, David Cameron does not have the Commons majority to fight some kind of new legislation. Cross-party talks are proposed for this afternoon, but the leaders’ positions are so far apart that reconciliation is unlikely. This could cause the long-running frictions of cohabitation between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives to erupt into parliamentary war.
At the heart of this is an ideological split between the coalition partners. Clegg talks about a “liberal” position where the freedom of “a raucous and vigorous press” has to be balanced with that of “‘vulnerable people” who have to be protected from the commercial interests of the press. Cameron, meanwhile, has sketched out a more libertarian position where such legislation is a “rubicon” that should never be crossed.
And so, rather than closing a chapter on the hacking scandal and all that followed, today has merely lit the fuse to an explosive political battle, which could well explode the coalition itself.