John Kampfner on Leveson: ‘A raucous, argumentative society is a healthy society.’

by Stephen Tall on November 28, 2012

I’ve already half-nailed my colours to the mast on Leveson. First, I am opposed to any form of state regulation of the press. Secondly, to those who argue that ‘state underpinning of en independent regulator’ is entirely different, I’m eager to find out details of what that actually means in practice.

In today’s Guardian, John Kampfner has a terrific article underscoring the liberal argument for maintaining a free press, and rightly critiquing those so-called progressive voices urging regulation:

I suspect some of those around Leveson, and around the Hacked Off campaign really do cavil at the thought of an impolite media. Why could they not all be more like the Guardian or FT? Why can’t free speech be my kind of speech? With some statutory checks and balances in place, maybe it will be, they hope.

Sadly, most of those determined to apply new constraints on the media hail from the centre-left. They are concerned less with the process of an open media and more with the outcome of a liberal society.

The events that led the prime minister to establish the inquiry were less the product of dodgy journalism (although there was enough of that), but of corporate power and police corruption. Officers did not lack legal “underpinning” to arrest phone hackers and harassers. That they chose not to – and this part appears to have been under-interrogated by Leveson – was to do with back-scratching at the heart of power.

For sure, provide a strong, independent regulatory system. But keep it away from those with the information monopoly. I have worked in many countries – including supposedly democratic ones – where journalists are seduced by the offer of a seat at the top table, or are persuaded not to ask that extra question. “Go easy, we don’t want trouble” could be enshrined as the mantra here.

A raucous, argumentative society is a healthy society. Journalists already preen too much and probe too little. That is the unfortunate state of affairs, even before Leveson issues his proclamation.

Lots of people — in particular from the liberal/centre-left — seem to regard state regulation as the media’s comeuppance for decades of excess. On one level, I understand that. I do wish the press were a little bit more like the FT (not so much The Guardian any more): reporting factually, proportionately, and keeping their views for the comment pages. But that isn’t what this is about.

The focus will be, I hope, on three things. First, ensuring the Establishment in whatever form it takes — government, media, courts, police, business — can be held to account through existing laws. This failed to be done throughout the phone-hacking scandal. Secondly, ensuring the public has affordable means of redress through tribunals that level the playing fields between an over-mighty media and a wronged citizen. And thirdly, for the newspapers to realise for their own sake their own urgent, desperate need to restore trust in their trade.