A week ago when Sir Brian Leveson published his report I offered a summary of his 2,000 pages in 70 words:
Leveson: “The press – but not politicians or the police – have been very naughty boys. Your ‘independent regulation’ plan is useless – adopt mine. I can help you cut your libel bills via an arbitration arm but we need a law to make this happen.
Cameron: “I like the ‘Leveson principles’ but not a Leveson law.”
Clegg: “I like them both.”
Cameron: “Let’s have another debate to get me off this hook.”
Now I can provide an update in just 5 words:
Cameron: “I’m off that hook”.
Downing Street’s plan is becoming clearer.
Step One –call in the editors and tell them to throw away that useless Hunt-Black plan and adopt Leveson’s model of an ‘independent self-regulator. Threaten them with full statutory regulation if they don’t do it quickly.
Step Two –implement the Leveson idea of an arbitration service to cut the press’s libel case costs by using any legalistic process that doesn’t have the word ‘statutory’ in it. Think of it as a ‘dab of legal gobbledygook’ rather than Hugh Grant’s ‘dab of statute’. Or if you like a David Cameron equivalent of Gordon Brown’s ‘stealth taxes’(revenue-raising without the dreaded word tax) called ‘stealth statute’ (regulatory rule-writing without the dreaded word ‘statutory”).
How do you make arbitration an attractive carrot to encourage papers to sign up with the new regulator? You change something that most people have never heard of called ’civil procedures’ instead of passing a new statute.
How do you keep an expert eye on whether the new regulator is working?Use a ‘verification body’ not a statutory committee.
Then, while DCMS lawyers prepare a red herring of a bill to prove statutory under-pinning won’t work and Lib-Lab lawyers spend hours producing one that prove it will, you package it all up in time for Christmas and declare victory. Then call in the Coalition doubters and ask them if they dare go into the division lobbies against the Government over legal hair-splitting.
The pieces in this seasonal jigsaw fell into place yesterday at a City University London ‘speed-debate’ –a seminar format that brought journalists, regulators, academics, lawyers and politicians together in a fast-track half-day debate.
Are there any downsides to this alongside the extraordinary irony that it is being negotiated in the kind of deal between press and politicians that Leveson spent months inquiring into?
Will victims of press intrusion ever get a say before the deal is done?
Won’t politicians be just as involved in appointing judges to ‘verification bodies’ as they would in appointing the chairmen of regulators?
There aren’t many days left in the post Leveson advent calendar to sort out what the regulator will actually do. Is it a good or bad idea to have mediation, adjudication, arbitration and standards enforcement all in the same body? That sounds like boring stuff that can be left to the regulatory anoraks further down the line.
Will the money raised by fines be enough to help pay for the extra cost of the free arbitration service? Will this free offer release a flood of complainants prepared to fill in a few forms for the chance of some cash?
Don’t suppose anybody has yet done a business plan and cash-flow forecast for the regulator or a risk analysis.
Be careful that we are not all back here in time for Christmas a few years out.
Sir Brian deserves the credit for getting so many things right but he also has to take his share of the blame for an overlong report that was sometimes confusing and occasionally contradictory.
Compare what he says about making ‘no recommendation’ on Ofcom as a backstop regulator in Executive Summary Paragraph 75 with what he says on page 1,788 (that’s right page 1,788) about Ofcom being ‘an obvious answer’.
And how the good advice he got from two of his advisory panel that he didn’t need to say this anyway got relegated to a footnote in Volume Four -not much return for their many days spent attending the hearings. Leveson created an ‘Ofcom problem’ that was a stick to beat him with.As one expert observer put it to me before our‘speed-debate’: ‘If only someone had told him to avoid any mention of the words ‘Ofcom’ and ‘backstop’.’
As the content regulator who spent two and a half years trying, against the odds, to persuade the deeply suspicious press that Ofcom didn’t want to regulate them, perhaps I should.