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Leveson and Britain's International Humiliation

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It could hardly be worse. The system of press regulation cobbled together by the Coalition and opposition in the wee small hours on Monday is, to borrow the Leveson jargon, neither voluntary, nor independent, nor self-regulation. Never mind that the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Igor Judge - who put forward Leveson's name for the inquiry - told us back in 2011 that Leveson was "not providing a judgment which is binding on anyone in any way." Never mind that Lord Judge said that "No one has handed even this distinguished judge a blank sheet of paper upon which to promulgate regulations or constraints on the press..."

Never mind his comment that "I will be equally unenthusiastic about regulatory control in the hands of the judiciary." Yet, to the eternal shame of parliament, we have ended up with a political concoction based on a single judge's recommendations, which may lead to the courts telling editors what to put in their publications. That noise you hear is the applause of dictators around the world.

It's no surprise the Leveson Inquiry has ended in utter disaster. It was blighted from the start. The Inquiry's premise - that phone-hacking was a failure of regulation and that the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) should be replaced - was false, the political hiding place of a Downing Street panicked into action by a fictitious allegation that the News of the World had deleted text messages from poor Milly Dowler's phone. To quote the Lord Chief Justice once again: "To criticise the PCC for failing to exercise powers it does not have is rather like criticising a judge who passes what appears to be a lenient sentence, when his power to pass a longer sentence is curtailed". Of course, the PCC needed more muscle and more independence. But it didn't need a full statutory inquiry to get them.

How many times does it have to be said that phone-hacking is a criminal offence for investigation by the police? If there was failure, it lay in the initial investigation by a police team who understandably gave higher priority to their primary role of pursuing terrorists. The police are now compensating with a vengeance, having arrested over 20 journalists. The law is, in other words, taking its course. The notion that a press regulator, such as the labyrinthine monster to be found appended to the draft Royal Charter, should assume quasi-police powers through a "standards and compliance arm" is worthy of General Franco's fascist Spain (I know, I lived there for three years).

People were rightly shocked that the pro-statute, anti-tabloid lobbyists, Hacked Off, should have been present in the room when Monday morning's tawdry deal was done. But they have been 'in the room' from the very beginning. Hacked Off was spawned by the Media Standards Trust, whose chairman, Sir David Bell, was appointed Judge Leveson's chief adviser (whose decision was that?). The trust is the selfsame organisation, whose 2009 report into the PCC "failed hopelessly, lacking any academic rigour", to quote Professor Roy Greenslade in the Guardian, no less.

The blunt truth is that, with or without a 'dab' of statute, the Royal Charter concept is itself objectionable. Royal Charters are supervised by privy councillors who are in their majority politicians. It is statute by any other name. To assert otherwise is pure sophistry. The current draft and its appendices set out in complex detail how the new regulatory system will work. It is self-regulation only in the sense that the newspaper industry is expected to pay for it.

There is much else to object to, not least the Orwellian threat of exemplary damages against all "relevant publishers" - still to be properly defined - who choose not to submit to the "approved regulator". This is licensing by any other name, the weapon of choice for many an authoritarian regime.

But, here's what is really upsetting. Britain's long-standing reputation for fairness and free speech - a potent instrument of soft power - is being trashed around the world, by our friends and adversaries alike. As a young diplomat I was in at the creation of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), set up in the depths of the Cold War to uphold democracy and human rights. A couple of days ago the OSCE expressed its concern at Britain's new regulatory system: It "could pose a threat to media freedom... the phone-hacking scandal should not be used as an excuse to rein in all print media... the British tradition of self-regulation is regarded around the world as best practice".

What a humiliation to get a warning from an organisation still dedicated to safeguardinging democracy in Europe. Let's hope our news organisations have the courage to follow the Spectator's magnificent example and refuse to be part of this mess.

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