There are 3 possible positions on the central issue of division on the Leveson report. One is the press industry’s view, and presumably Cameron’s, namely a stronger version of the Hunt-Black proposals for independent self-regulation which could incorporate many of the Leveson principles, but crucially would be voluntary and depend on the industry coming together to agree its terms and how to enforce them.
The second would be Leveson’s own recommendations for independent self-regulation which would include a minimal element of statutory underpinning and perhas some role for Ofcom to audit the regulator, ensure it complied with the Leveson criteria, and to act as a fallback regulator if necessary if the voluntary system failed.
The third would be some system of statutory regulation of the press, though that is hardly the choice of anybody. The real choice is between the first two. If the choice is for what the majority of the public wants and for what would provide safeguards against brutalising intrusions of privacy such as we have repeatedly seen, then it is the second option. If it is a trade-off between the power brokers, it will veer to the first. But it is not as simple as that.
The strongest argument in favour of the first option is that, in the name of freedom of the press like an unchallengeable talisman, it must be given one final opportunity to put its own house in order. The strongest argument against it is that it has repeatedly demanded this, most notably when David Mellor declared in 1991 that the press was drinking at the last chance saloon, yet every time it has blown it, as Leveson’s exhaustive catalogue graphically displays, going far beyond the most notorious examples of the McCanns and Dowlers and the 900 victims of phone-hacking so far identified by the police.
Why should it be any different this time? Without statutory underpinning, why should a rogue proprietor like Richard Desomond, who is already on record as saying “Ethical? I don’t understand the meaning of the word”, join up in a private contract with other press tycoons, and even if he did, why would he stick with it if he later found it inconvenient? Why should Ayatollah Dacre, who has shown no sensitivity or remorse about several cruelly hurtful and damaging stories printed in the Mail to which Leveson refers, be expected to display any compliance in future if called to order by a private body he disagreed with?
The strongest argument for the second option is that would finally call halt to the serial misdemeanours which have tarnished the British press for far too long. It would offer a stable and durable system, with enforcement powers and with sanctions in reserve as a last resort. Objections have been raised against Ofcom as the body for fall-back regulation, and maybe an alternative body with the specific Leveson role would be more appropriate. However that leaves open how it should be chosen if it is to be transparently independent both of the industry and the State.