What Problem Is Leveson Trying to Solve?

27/06/2012 09:17 BST | Updated 26/08/2012 10:12 BST

Had the Guardian not reported - erroneously - that voicemails had been deleted by News of the World journalists from the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl, Millie Dowler, Downing Street would never have set up the Leveson Inquiry last year. David Cameron must have thought that by bringing Leveson into existence, he had successfully dodged having to deal with furious requests for a crack-down on the tabloid press. But, almost a year later, the inquiry has turned into a Frankenstein's monster. With its revelations about the intimacy of his and his party's links to News International - matching those of Tony Blair and New Labour - the inquiry has damaged Cameron's reputation.

The coalition leadership is not good at learning the lessons of the past. There is little point in blaming the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, for advising Cameron to set up the Leveson Inquiry - though, if he did, he should have known better. Civil servants propose, ministers dispose. Cameron and his advisers should have looked at the 1994 precedent of John Major and the Nolan Committee. Tormented beyond endurance by the accusations of sleaze levelled by the Labour Party, Major created Nolan to investigate standards in public life and to make recommendations. He hoped that this manoeuvre would, with one bound, free him of his tormentors. But to many already rebellious Tory backbenchers, the Committee's creation looked like a panicky sledgehammer to crack a nut; and, far from shoring up his position, it aggravated Major's weakness inside his own party, provoking a leadership challenge the following year.

If today's No 10 had listened to this echo from the past, they would have heard another. Major would never have been stuck with the sleaze label, if his populist Back To Basics campaign, launched in 1993, had not been hijacked by those in the Tory party who wanted to give it a moral dimension. This was an open invitation to the press to dredge through every Tory politician's private life for the least peccadillo. Scandals and resignations duly followed. There is a clear lesson: don't make a morality tale of government policy. By asserting that tax evasion is immoral, the government has repeated Major's error and made a rod for its back. I would not be surprised if, unchilled by Leveson, the hacks are even now digging into senior Tories' tax affairs.

With the creation of Leveson, the law of unintended consequences has therefore struck with a vengeance. A great part of the problem is that he was given - and unwisely accepted - an unnecessarily wide remit. Leveson might not have liked being on the receiving end of lectures about freedom of the press from the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. But this was going to happen sooner or later, given Leveson's licence to probe into almost every nook and cranny of public, and sometimes private, life. By definition this has taken him into areas where there is no role for regulation or rule-making. For example, have our politicians hugged some editors and proprietors too close? Of course they have - even John Major tried with Rupert Murdoch. Politicians and journalists have been drawn to each other like moths to flames since the 18th century. It is a natural, if adversarial, relationship, with dangers for either side if things get too chummy and mutually dependent. It is also a relationship between consenting adults and not one to be defined or limited by some judge-made edict. In America, where free speech is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, people I know are flabbergasted that the freedom of the British press depends on recommendations to the government of a single judge, aided and abetted by a random collection of assessors.

Lord Justice Leveson's spat with Michael Gove underlines how far his inquiry has strayed from its origins: phone hacking. If an overly ambitious remit is a profound weakness (though an intermittent source of huge entertainment to Leveson groupies, including yours truly), the San Andreas fault of the whole exercise is the premise that phone hacking made the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) unfit for purpose. Make no mistake - the PCC needs reforming and strengthening. The recent submissions to Leveson of Lord Hunt, its current chairman, and of Lord Black, representing the newspaper industry, make a number of important and ingenious proposals in that respect. But, phone hacking was, is and should always be a criminal offence for investigation by the police. That is why the Met is investigating it even now with unprecedented zeal.

Meanwhile, another week, another parade of witnesses in Court 73. You do wonder how on earth Leveson is going to get his head round the mountains of evidence and witness statements.