My reaction to the report of the Leveson Inquiry today was mixed to say the least. On the one hand, any intrusion of Parliament into our free press seems fundamentally illiberal to me – the heavy weight of bureaucracy coming smashing down to dampen our fiercely independent media, which has shown itself more than capable of exposing the very worst excesses in recent times. After all, it was Nick Davies at the Guardian whose reporting exposed the phone-hacking scandal that led to the Leveson Inquiry in the first place. And it was the Daily Telegraph that reported on the shameful abuse of expenses by many of our politicians at Westminster. A free and independent press is crucial to the health of our democracy. Leveson, with its regulatory powers established by the state, seemed to me to risk sending our democracy to A&E.
So this afternoon I had resigned myself to siding with David Cameron, rather than Nick Clegg, as both made their statements to Parliament. I was worried that the Liberal Democrats had gone with what is popular rather than what is right. But for me, Nick was (mostly) right. If the UK is to have any external press regulation, than it must be independent, and it must be “independent for good”. The phone hacking scandal demonstrates that internal press regulation has not prevented gross abuses of trust or power. Nick got it spot on when he said something needs to be done, and to do nothing “would be the worst outcome” of all.
Despite this, for me, and I suspect for many other party members as well, there is still a reluctance to support legislation (in any form) of the press. For one, there is already legislation in place to deal with the crimes committed in the course of phone-hacking, and individuals like Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson are currently being prosecuted under it. If the law had been followed, it is highly likely that phone-hacking would never have happened. But I found comfort in looking at the Irish model. As Nick mentioned in his statement, Ireland is an example of statutory underpinning of press regulation. It is independent and successful, and supported by the press. “The system works”, says Kevin O’Sullivan, editor of The Irish Times.
As liberals, we need to be careful how much we let the state intrude into freedom of the press. The fallout from the Leveson Report is only just beginning. Let Cameron get on his high horse, preaching about basic freedoms. On this one, I think the Liberal Democrats might just get it right.
* Alex Paul is a current student at Edinburgh University and the incumbent Membership Secretary of Liberal Youth Scotland.
* Alex Paul is a Lib Dem member. Originally from London, he now lives and works in Washington, D.C.