The holidays began with the follow-up to the publication of Sir Brian Leveson's report on press regulation drowning in a sea of confusion. This was predictable. The problem went deeper than a struggle between those for and against statutory 'underpinning.' It sprang from a fundamental contradiction within Leveson's recommendations. He swore blind that they could not be construed as an assault on freedom of the press. But, mentored by his eminence grise, Sir David Bell (see Media Standards Trust/Hacked Off/Bureau of Investigative Journalism), a long-time enemy of press self-regulation, he produced an authoritarian and illiberal tract.
It is not just that Leveson would have underpinned the new regulator by statute and had it 'verified' (pure milk of George Orwell) by the state in the shape of OfCom; but that his 2,000 pages are shot through with authoritarian prescriptions which would, for example, severely hamper investigative reporting through a draconian application of the Data Protection Act.
No wonder people are tying themselves in knots as they try to navigate Leveson's contradiction and come up with a form of underpinning/verification, consistent with a free press. We have already a Harman plan, a Lester plan, a Hunt plan, and, apparently, a Letwin plan. Then, there is the editors' promised plan. It's hardly surprising that this collective of widely disparate interests, itself a manifestation of a free press, is having difficulty agreeing a common approach, when it will have to pay for Leveson's regulatory behemoth. Sooner or later we will have also a coalition government plan, though, if the prime minister has his way, it won't be the draft bill in Maria Miller's pocket, which is intended to demonstrate how difficult statutory underpinning would be (back in the 1990s, John Major abandoned a privacy bill, in part because the drafters were defeated by the challenge of defining the public interest). Before Christmas, a royal charter looked to be the magic bullet. But, for all its ingenuity, it is, of course, the wrong answer, since royal charters have to be enacted and renewed. This lets into press regulation privy councillors, parliament, the government of the day, the judiciary - in short, the state in all its majesty.
Meanwhile, as usual, the forgotten element in all this thrashing around is the public, though its name is constantly taken in vain. The debate has been between political elites, just as the parade of press victims at the inquiry was overwhelmed by celebs. But, when the dust has settled, statute or no statute, royal charter or no royal charter, there will be only one 'verifier' that matters: the people who use the services of the new regulator.
Which brings us to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), under sentence of death, but still soldiering on in the most demoralising circumstances conceivable. Despite its being made the scapegoat for the criminal offence of phone-hacking, and then coming under full-frontal assault in Leveson's report, there remains widespread public demand for the commission's three core services: handling complaints, dealing with pre-publication issues and curbing harassment. Leveson's premise that the public had lost confidence in the PCC flew in the face of the four-fold increase in numbers using its services over the last decade. But, there are none so deaf as those who don't want to hear.
The new regulator tampers with these services at its peril, because it is here that the rubber hits the road. From the first moment of the new regulator's existence, it will be judged by how it handles complaints and protects the vulnerable. It will be confronted every day without respite by angry, grieving, indignant or bewildered members of the public looking for swift retribution, remedy or protection. Fewer than 1% of them will be celebs. Welcome, new regulator, to the land of permanent controversy, where you are damned if you do and damned if you don't, where absolute right and wrong are only fitfully present, where every man and his dog think they know better than you where the line should lie between the private and public spaces. There is nothing in any of the proposals aired at the inquiry or in Leveson or in the hubbub since that will make regulatory issues any more tractable than they have been for over the last two decades.
Heaven knows, the PCC needed more muscle and more independence. But, there is no half-decent system of press regulation in the world that does not begin with the taking of complaints from the public. Yet Leveson rejected the notion that a complaints-driven system could justify calling itself a regulator. Compare and contrast with a speech on press regulation by the lord chief justice, Lord Judge (his real name), to the Human Rights Conference in October 2011 - easily available on the internet and a model of understanding and enlightenment.