Freedom of the press is one of the building blocks of our democracy; the ability to probe the actions and motives of those in power is vital to sustain our liberties.
However, there is a difference between liberty and license. There’s a gulf between probing and intruding. Sometimes, the need to know can go too far and exceed the bounds of decency. In a heated commercial environment, in which newspapers are increasingly competing for clicks, standard norms of behaviour have been ignored.
We saw how badly this could go wrong in the case of Milly Dowler: the hacking of this unfortunate young girl’s phone, and thus giving false hope to her parents, should horrify all of us. Even Rupert Murdoch was chastened by this episode. However, this was just the spark that lit the flame: there was more to look at, and much more to learn. After all, there are so many other cases of press intrusion: witness the trial by media of Cliff Richard. Can we say that there has been full closure on the press’s treatment of the Hillsborough disaster? Are we satisfied that the press is now behaving ethically in light of what the first Leveson enquiry uncovered? Many of those who have been at the rough end of the press’ endeavours in recent years would say not; I agree with them.
Hence, I supported Leveson 2: this was supposed to look at the relationship between journalists and the police. This has just been scuppered. There is an air of unseemly collaboration behind this decision: I have to wonder if the motivation for this decision has to do with currying favour with the barons of Fleet Street.
We are told these institutions are under pressure from digital media: perhaps so, but that doesn’t absolve them from scrutiny. When the government bailed out the banks after the financial crash, the City proceeded to let rip with big bonuses again as soon as possible. I have to wonder if something similar is afoot with the press; now the government has effectively halted any further scrutiny, will we soon find that they are back to behaviours they had solemnly promised to abandon? I don’t believe the Leveson enquiries are a panacea; sometimes, I even disagree with some of the proposals that have arisen from them.
For example, I don’t believe it’s right that the newspapers should be forced to pay legal costs for both sides if they win their case. This sounds like a formula for spurious claims; if both sides have some responsibility for the costs that should act as a deterrent to frivolous cases.
Nevertheless, the abandonment of Leveson 2 seems rash; we do need a free press, but we also need one that operates fairly.
That goal may have just become harder to reach.