Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 30 November 2012

David Cameron may just have made the biggest mistake of his career

The details almost don't matter. His plaintive cries of "Won't somebody please think of the independence of the press" will fall on deaf ears. David Cameron has made the wrong call on one of the main issues that he will be remembered for.

When the phone hacking scandal kicked off last year Cameron was a bit slow off the mark and allowed Ed Miliband to carve himself out a niche as doughty defender of those who had been wronged by a rapacious media. But as our PM has consistently demonstrated, right from when he first made that electrifying speech at Conservative conference in 2005 which probably won him the leadership when his back's against the wall he can come out fighting.

I was in the Strangers Gallery on that day last July when Cameron made his speech in response to the hacking crisis in the Commons. It was another top notch political performance. In exactly the same way as he has managed to find the right tone for responses to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and the Hillsborough Inquiry, he managed it on that day too. I was heartened to see how much the Prime Minister "got it". He understood that the press was out of control and he set up the Leveson Inquiry to tackle this precise problem.

In a few minutes yesterday with his denial of implementing Leveson in full including the required statutory underpinning he pissed all of this away.

A couple of key vignettes from yesterday's coverage of this stick in my mind.

The first was Jane Winter one of the phone hacking victims during the "Hacked Off" press conference who was almost in tears as she explained how she felt "betrayed" by Cameron. In correspondence with Ms Winter, the PM had promised to implement the proposals "as long as they are not bonkers". A small amount of statute to ensure the press abide by the rules that they are allowed to set themselves is not bonkers. Everyone can see that it is not bonkers, even those who disagree with statute. Everyone can see that the PM has not adhered to either the spirit or even the letter of his promises on this issue.

The second was on BBC's This Week last night where Michael Portillo highlighted in 30 seconds just how pointless the whole exercise of Leveson has been now that Cameron has made it clear he will not be backing his key recommendation. His view is that we might as well not have bothered. The press now have nothing to fear and can basically go back to business as usual was his analysis. I'm not sure this is 100% right. There is still political pressure for the press to reform. But without a way of ensuring they stick to their promises I am sure it is only a matter of time before they revert to type. They always have done in the past after the many inquiries there have been in the last 70 years. Without statute there is absolutely no reason to suppose they will not do so again. Charlotte Church articulated this point particularly well on Question Time last night.

I suspect Cameron thinks that he will take some heat for this in the short term but that with the press on side it is worth it for the dividends he will reap in positive coverage come the next election. I think he is wrong. The public will not easily forget the avalanche of evidence that was presented to Leveson and reported on at the time in intricate detail. The families of Milly Dowler, Madeleine McCann and all the others who were wronged by the press will linger long in the memory.

We know there is a majority in parliament for statute. Labour, the Lib Dems and at least 50 Tory MPs want to see it. The only block to it happening is the man in No 10 because he has the power of initiation for legislation. The buck stops with him.

No politician would relish the idea of being aligned in any way with those who have damaged the lives of victims of crime. Unfortunately for Mr Cameron, whatever his motivations and arguments that is the impression people who pay little attention to politics (i.e. most people) will be left with.

He had the chance to do something to rein in the press and help prevent future abuses. He chose not to. That's all that will matter to many people.

He may just have made the biggest mistake of his political career.


Anonymous said...

You want a regulated press, I hear North Korea is nice this time of year.

Liam Pennington said...

Nobody wants a regulated press. We want a responsible press - something they've proven can't be done with self-regulation alone.

The current regime asks editors to mark their own homework, and that's about as good as allowing bankers to check each other's maths.

Anonymous said...


My question is whether - if you are backing the full implementation of Leveson's recommendations - you feel you have had time to digest them fully and consider the implications properly. Particularly the implications of the recommendation that the press should be required by law to comply with the first data protection principle. (Nick Clegg says he has 'concerns' about that, and it does look like a very dramatic legal limitation on press freedom - perhaps more significant that the question of the regulatory body.)

Mark Thompson said...

@Anon2: Short answer, no I have not had time to read through and fully digest all aspects of this.

What I can say is that a knee-jerk dismissal of the very limited statute element which Leveson very carefully set out is not the right response. If there are specific concerns then of course they can be tackled and hopefully resolved during the legislative process.

Anonymous said...

"If there are specific concerns then of course they can be tackled and hopefully resolved during the legislative process."

One would hope so. But I would say that it's too important a subject to be safely left to parliamentarians to scrutinise - especially given their track record on civil liberties in the last decade or so.