Peter Preston: 'At the fourth inquiry of asking, we have our best chance of corralling press forever'

The UK’s reputation as a bastion of print freedom has taken a severe knocking and the danger is that Leveson could leave a press that is emasculated and toothless, writes Peter Preston, a former Guardian editor and now media columnist for The Observer. This article was first published in the September edition of Press Gazette – Journalism Quarterly. Click here to subscribe for less than £20 a year.

The difficulty, start to inglorious finish, has been thinking of the news outside our tarnished little world.

Did the Screws newsdesk, seven or so years ago, think of what would happen to journalists as far away as Pretoria or Istanbul if their hacking games were discovered?

Of course not: if it’s not in NI’s circulation area, it doesn’t count. Oblivion begins a few hundred miles south of Calais.

Nobody paid any heed to the Press Complaints Commission’s gallant efforts – take a bow, Professor Pinker – to extend the reach of self-regulation to places around the world where governments are the first, instinctive enemies of press freedom.

Nobody saw how one bad call could go with another. But I hope they’re beginning to glimpse the damage now.

There are around 19,000 working newspaper journalists in Britain on the latest research count.

Perhaps 0.02 per cent of them may or may not have hackings to hide. The scandal is real, but it doesn’t – and can’t – be used to smear the whole newspaper trade.

Yet that, of course, is how it has been played out, one issue swilling into another as the power of Rupert Murdoch has come under withering fire. Other scandals come and go in a trice.

MPs’ expenses was momentous while it lasted: but it didn’t last long. Rigging Libor will be over, one way or another, by Christmas.

The Whiplash Willies whose antics add hundreds of pounds to the car insurance premiums you and I pay haven’t even had an inquiry yet. But when the News of the World – holed below the waterline by those grisly Milly Dowler allegations – sank without trace, the opportunity for a full dress commission, running month after month on fresh outrages, was irresistible.

Irresistible to politicians with some scores to settle: irresistible to rival papers who’ve always feared Murdoch: irresistible to media academics, who like to teach courses that sit well in polite society. Leveson would be payback time.

Does any of this mean I’m feeble, going on complaisant, when journalists break the law of the land? Absolutely not. Investigate, arrest, charge, convict if the evidence is there.

That’s what our courts and policemen are there for. That’s what reporters like Nick Davies are there to set rolling. But, and it’s a giant “but”, this process has almost no relevance to Lord Justice Leveson’s year of hearings and broodings.

Indeed, he’s had to steer clear of the events that had brought his exercise into being.

Therefore a different charge sheet had to be constructed. Call victims or otherwise from virtually every press debacle of the last two decades except the one on everybody’s mind.

Call the McCanns, again. Call Christopher Jefferies and the inevitable Max Mosley. Remember, as Leveson does repeatedly himself, that Press Complaints Commission regulation isn’t real regulation at all; that an “independent” new body (or two) paid for by newspapers but perhaps without any active editors on board, is what’s needed

Henceforth. Think fines, think the kind of Whitehall controls that once condemned Death on The Rock and then, strangely, saw Thames TV lose its franchise.

It’s that old British illusion. We’re pure and corruption free. Our civil servants and doctors and barristers are pristine. Our politicians are fine men and women, too much traduced.

It’s the press that lets us down, a press we don’t read written for millions of people we barely know.

But now, at the fourth inquiry of asking, we have our best chance of corralling it forever, incarcerating its awkward squads in a regime that can be as easily fixed as.. well… putting the right retired politician in charge of the BBC or the right non-retired Downing Street aide in charge of Ofcom.

And meanwhile, week after week, the arrests go on, two dozen, three dozen and rising. There’s a bang on some door as dawn breaks, a bevy of policemen surrounding and rushing in.

Even Tom Mockridge, put in charge of Wapping to co-operate not complain, finds the ritual offensive: and so should most thinking journalists, at home and abroad. For far beyond Weeting, Elveden and the Strand, some terrible lessons are being drawn. Governments round the globe can’t abide press self-regulation.

They want regulation they can manipulate and regulators they can control. They’re happy to go through the motions. But a judge they can choose, an inquiry that can make its own hanging case, and a set of conclusions they can implement, always citing British democracy and the wisdom of the mother of parliaments? That’s closure in their own last chance saloons; with prohibition to follow.

When we get to those dawn arrests, moreover, the example gets even worse. Turkey locks up more journalists than any nation in the world. And here’s one of the nicer Turkish newspaper columnists defending his government’s reputation.

See how much worse Britain treats its journalists, he writes: see the spate of arrests sweeping on. How can we be doing anything wrong then?

That’s a terrible bind for yet more Turkish writers and editors. It’s a terrible example of the way British justice handles its journalists. It’s a terrible folly for police who need to live on shared information and admiration.

But that, from beginning to miserable end, would seem to be where we are: punishing ourselves, self-flagellating, not setting due and necessary prosecution and tough retribution in that wider, vital context where the information we depend on is supposed to flow free.

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