The actor Hugh Grant – dubbed the “Poster Boy” of the Hacked Off campaign by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail – is confident the most important work of the Leveson Inquiry has yet to come. He considers that an investigation into possible corruption between press and police and the extent of collusion between media proprietors and politicians is of far greater significance than the hacking of celebrities’ phones.
Unknown to the producers of Radio 4’s Today programme when Grant’s pre-recorded interview was being broadcast (11.2.2012), the Metropolitan Police had already begun arresting another five of the Sun’s leading journalists as part of Operation Elveden, its investigation into alleged illegal payments to police officers and other public officials.
The sheer number of arrests from the staff of both the Sun and former News of the World – along with the earlier arrests of other former News International executives such as Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson – has ramped up yet again the possibility of extensive collateral damage to the Prime Minister David Cameron and other Conservative ministers in the coalition government.
Fearing no doubt that he might be asked on the Andrew Marr Show (12.2.2012) about the awkward questions which politicians might face when they have to appear before the Leveson Inquiry, Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, looked visibly relaxed when Marr confined himself to questions about the regulation of the press.
Hunt turned in a confident performance insisting that the consensus which was emerging over the need for a much tougher industry-led system of press regulation vindicated the Prime Minister’s decision to establish the Leveson Inquiry in the wake of the revelations about the hacking of the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
Later Hunt told the World This Weekend (12.2.2012) that he wanted to see a “modern regulatory system” which allowed newspapers to be successful and profitable in the internet age. But the Secretary of State was not asked – and did not proffer – any kind of assurance that the UK’s system for controlling media ownership would be free from political interference by the government of the day.
In his interview the day before on Today, Hugh Grant was in no doubt that Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry should not get too bogged down by recommending how to regulate journalists when it was corruption of the police and political collusion with media proprietors which was of far greater importance.
“Why have we had six successive governments competing to be sycophantic to various newspapers? Why have we had the cowardice and bullying of our elected parliamentarians who were unable to speak their minds until last July when at last they began to look like men again instead of wimps?”
It is likely to be May at the earliest before David Cameron is called to give evidence to Lord Justice Leveson and the inquiry has a chance to hear the Prime Minister’s views on the relationship between politicians and media proprietors. Cameron’s frequent socialising with Rebekah Brooks and other News International executives prior to July 2011 has left him in a vulnerable position.
So has his decision to appoint the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as the Conservative Party’s media chief in March 2007 and his subsequent action in taking Coulson with him into Downing Street where he became the government’s director of communications for the first eight months of the coalition government. There are many unanswered questions about precisely what the Prime Minister knew of Coulson’s role in the phone hacking scandal.
So far there have been few attempts to hold the government to account and when interviewed by Andrew Marr, and later by Edward Stourton, Jeremy Hunt was spared any mention of his own pre-election role in helping the Conservative Party to reconnect with newspapers like the Sun and the News of the World and in accommodating the demands of the Murdoch Press that a future Conservative government should rein in the BBC and relax the regulations on cross-media ownership.
Among the pre-election undertakings given by Cameron and Hunt were a promise to strip the broadcasting regulator Ofcom of its policy-making functions and a pledge to freeze the BBC licence fee, two initiatives welcomed at the time by News International and its executives. In the event, the BBC’s licence free was frozen for six years in October 2010 and Hunt was on the point of approving News Corporation’s bid for total control of BSkyB when it had be aborted in July 2011 in the wake of the disclosures about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone.
Another issue which might have been worth mentioning during Hunt’s radio and television interviews was the election-day endorsement of the Conservatives by the four News International titles but the danger passed and the Secretary of State was allowed to concentrate on the issue of how to regulate press content rather than ownership.
Hunt agreed with Andrew Marr that having to go through the process of the inquiry was an element of punishment in itself for the newspaper industry. He thought a far greater consensus was emerging than anyone had imagined possible.
“Everyone agrees we don’t want state regulated content...I would like an industry-led structure, independent of newspaper editors and proprietors. But if a newspaper is being punished it needs to be a credible punishment and not the option of leaving the Press Complaints Commission.”
Hunt was concerned for the future of the press: the newspaper industry was not making money and faced a real, big technological upheaval. He told Edward Stourton that the Leveson inquiry had underlined the importance of a free press and the importance of the tabloids.
“But the elephant in the room is that the newspaper industry is in very considerable danger of going out of business. We need a modern regulatory system which allows newspapers to be successful and profitable in the internet age.”
While it was not the job of the Secretary of State to say “who should own newspapers”, he thought Rupert Murdoch’s investment in Sky Television had massively increased choice in one of the most competitive broadcasting markets in Europe.
Questions about the role which ministers in the coalition government intend to play in the future in regulating media ownership were left unspoken and unanswered.
Illustrations: The Observer, 12 February, 2012; Daily Mail, 10 February, 2012.