Leveson Statutory Regulation or Press Freedom - A Bogus Choice

07/12/2012 13:14 GMT | Updated 05/02/2013 10:12 GMT

Lord Justice Leveson's report on press conduct and ethics has provided us with a unique opportunity to address problems that are decades old.

There is consensus that the current system of press regulation is broke and needs fixing. It not only fell short in investigating allegations of criminal wrongdoing ie phone hacking but over a long period of time failed to prevent the unethical conduct which did so much harm to the McCanns, the Hillsborough families and too many innocent members of the public. Its weakness together with the malpractice and failure of corporate governance at News International has cast a shadow over the reputation of the vast majority of local and national editors and journalists who strive to uphold high professional standards.

Lord Black, Lord Hunt and the majority of serving editors weeks in advance of the publication of the Leveson report sought to frame the debate as a stark choice between state regulation of the press and the freedom of the press. This is and always was a bogus choice as Leveson himself said when explaining the need for minimalist statute. "This is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press. What is proposed here is independent regulation of the press organised by the press, with a statutory verification process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness are met." In fact, this in Leveson's own words would "enshrine for the first time a legal duty on the government to protect the freedom of the press".

Harriet Harman in the first substantive parliamentary debate post publication of Lord Justice Levesons report forensically took apart criticisms that the proposed statue would undermine the freedom of the press. Firstly, reference to the press in legislation does not undermine its freedom. In the past the press have been instrumental in lobbying for their inclusion in legislation ie Human Rights Act 1998. Secondly, the proposed statute would verify that the new independent industry regulator was properly fulfilling its duties not, regulate the press. Thirdly, new legislation can be introduced at any time making a mockery of the claim amendable legislation is the "thin edge of the wedge." Fourthly, other countries ie Ireland have introduced similar measures accepted by many of our large UK based newspapers. In addition, the Irish legislation consists of two clauses, not the cumbersome legislation that some suggest. Finally, this is not a call to determine what can and what cannot be written but a call for a responsible press that recognises the rights of private citizens. Imagining a world without statute, we would inevitably see a world of "editors marking their own homework" again. Harriet rightly called for cross-party cooperation to achieve an acceptable solution.

In rejecting Leveson's minimalist but essential proposal on statute David Cameron has divided his coalition and party while letting down the victims of press misconduct who genuinely believed he would do the right thing. Worse still, he has put his perception of the political interests of the Tory party ahead of the national interest. He has cynically calculated that on this one issue alone he could repair his ruptured relationship with the right wing press who have become increasingly critical of his government.

In stark contrast, Ed Miliband has shown political courage and true conviction in accepting Leveson's recommendation that a new independent self-regulatory system can only work with statutory verification. In doing so, he has demonstrated his willingness to honour his commitment that the Labour party he leads will stand up to vested interests however powerful when they act against the public interest. In the first test of One Nation Labour he has shown that irrespective of political risk and the temptation of political expediency he is serious when he asserts that responsibility must apply to all sections of society without fear or favour. On a daily basis, the press, left and right alike bemoan a shortage of conviction politicians. They do not get the irony of their criticism of Miliband and MP's including a significant number of Tory MP's when it comes to their own blinkered self interest.

Thankfully, David Cameron's calculation that press ethics are largely a 'Westminster bubble' issue has turned out to be a mistake. In the days following his rejection of an integral part of Leveson's package of recommendations the public have made it clear that they instinctively mistrust Cameron's opposition to any form of statute. In doing so they may have debunked the myth that has so influenced the conduct of the political class for decades. Namely, a belief that making decisions which are at odds with the interests of powerful sections of the press leads to negative electoral consequences.

Since the horrendous story of the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone shocked the nation, Ed Miliband has provided strong and principled leadership on a sensitive and highly charged issue. In these difficult times, it would be wrong to suggest the conduct of the press is a priority issue for the 'squeezed middle.' However, over the next couple of years as they reflect on the challenges the country faces they are likely to conclude these are the leadership qualities best placed to deliver the change the country needs.

Ivan Lewis is MP for Bury South, shadow secretary of state for international development and former Labour spokesperson on culture, media and sport.