While all the post-Leveson skirmishing has been about newspaper editors trying to stitch up a deal with the government on press regulation, there is other unfinished business from the Leveson Inquiry which will require attention in the Prime Minister’s New Year in tray.
Although woefully inadequate, the judge did make a series of recommendations designed to strengthen the Ministerial Code and to ensure greater transparency in future about meetings between politicians and media owners, editors and senior executives.
In the wake of the outrage over the phone hacking scandal in July 2011, David Cameron did ask ministers publish a quarterly declaration of all such meetings – ‘regardless of the nature of the meeting.’
But the Prime Minister and his colleagues made a mockery of the need for greater transparency because except for identifying who, when and where they met the lists gave no hint of the purpose or the outcome of their deliberations. Cameron used the catch-all term ‘general discussion’ alongside eight of his entries for meetings with Rupert or James Murdoch and other News International executives.
An over-arching failure of Lord Justice Leveson’s examination of the closeness of relations between press proprietors and the government of the day was his lofty disregard of the covert daily currency of political collusion and media manipulation.
From the outset he concluded that ‘a number of issues...“spin”, so-called anonymous briefings and the practice of “feeding” favoured journalists with stories in return for an expectation of a certain type of treatment’ were not ‘central to the work of the inquiry’.
Yet these were the very same techniques which the proprietors, editors and Conservative politicians used with such devastating effect to spin the line that the judge intended to turn Britain back three hundred years to what the Daily Mail predicted would be the ‘new dark age’ of a licensed press. (Daily Mail, 3.11.2012)
Leveson was outmanoeuvred and outgunned by a pre-emptive strike by the owners’ front organisation, the Free Speech Network, and his plaintive complaint that that newspapers had directed their ‘considerable megaphones’ against him even before the inquiry had presented its report only served to underline the folly of his decision to turn his back on issues of press standards and ethics as they applied to political journalism.
Proprietors and politicians have always been careful to avoid scrutiny of their two-way trade in favourable press reporting in return for a sympathetic approach to media ownership and regulation. Therefore the very occasional insight into this hitherto hidden relationship is all the more revealing.
What did the judge think David Cameron had in mind when he gave the inquiry his explanation for the 2009 text message from Rebekah Brooks saying that ‘professionally we’re definitely in this together!’?
Cameron told the judge it meant that he as future Prime Minister and that she as editor of the Sun ‘were going to be pushing the same political agenda’.
Leveson did explore how in May 2011 the Sun strong-armed the Prime Minister into ordering a review by the Metropolitan Police Service into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.
But the judge failed to investigate earlier and far more significant examples of the way in which Andy Coulson, then the Downing Street director of communications, provided the impetus for delivering the shared political agenda of Cameron and Brooks by crafting it into headline-grabbing coverage for the Murdoch press.
In August 2010, within weeks of the coalition’s post-election emergency budget, the Sun published a two-page spread supported with a signed article by the Prime Minister to launch the paper’s hotline for readers to expose ‘feckless benefit scroungers’. (Sun 12.8.2010)
Another well-planned propaganda offensive was mounted in October when Cameron was provided with another double-page spread to re-launch his “Big Society’ initiative. (Sun, 8.10.2010)
There was no mention of the behind-the-scenes negotiations which must have preceded publication of these endorsements in the up dated declaration of meetings which Cameron published in July 2011nor would the enhancements to the Ministerial Code proposed by Leveson have forced full disclosure.
The judge had concluded that ‘only very limited steps’ were needed and he had restricted his remit simply to cover lobbying about the commercial interests of the press. As a result his recommendations were limited to requiring declaration of the ‘general nature of any discussion of media policy issues’
Although he did recommend that the quarterly declaration should be expanded to include political special advisers, lobbyists and the official Opposition – and that there should also be also be an indication of the ‘frequency or density of contact by phone call, text and email’ – he had no wish to be ‘either intrusive or burdensome’ and his proposed tightening of the code seemed to give politicians plenty of leeway:
‘A fair and reasonably complete picture by way of general estimate only, of the frequency or density of other interaction (including correspondence, phone, text and email) but not necessarily including content.’
Unless ministers are prevented from hiding behind terms like ‘general discussion’ there is unlikely to be any greater transparency about the daily currency of the political patronage of media proprietors or about the flow of information from the state to the public, a process about which – surprise, surprise – Leveson found nothing which gave ‘rise to any legitimate public concern’.