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Sunday 2 December 2012

Cameron stand back in the rush to judgement

The British PM was right to be ruled by principle on Lord Leveson's report

ONE of my favourite cartoons of all time showed the march of the moderates. They were chanting: "What do we want? Moderate change. When do we want it? In due course."

It's a lonely position to hold when people are rushing to judgment and screaming that something must be done. NOW! To suggest a pause to consult and think rather than storm the Bastille is to risk being howled down and accused of not caring about whatever outrage has given rise to justified public indignation.

And so it was with the British prime minister last week after he accepted all of Lord Leveson's report on the British press, except a recommendation that would have regulation underpinned by legislation.

Victims of revolting press conduct were wheeled out to denounce him as uncaring. The comedian Stephen Fry, who takes himself and his opinions very seriously, told his five million Twitter followers: "It would seem David Cameron's address is no longer Number 10 Downing Street: it's now Flat 2, Rupert Murdoch's arse."

It isn't, actually. With two ex-editors of Murdoch's now defunct News of the World – Cameron's ex-friend Rebekah Brooks, and his ex-communications director Andy Coulson – charged respectively with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and perjury – it would have been easier for Cameron to be seen to trample on press proprietors, but he thought there was a huge principle at stake which he wouldn't dodge: press freedom.

Although like any politician he sometimes yields to the temptation to play to the mob, when Cameron believes decent traditional English values are under threat, he's fierce in their defence. Hence, on reading the Bloody Sunday inquiry report, he tore up the anodyne speech he'd been given and made an impassioned apology which did not please hardliners in the Ministry of Defence or his own party. His horrified response to the Hillsborough report similarly annoyed elements in the police.

Not least because of his embarrassing connections with people on whose editorial watch ordinary people as well as celebrities had been harassed and traduced, Cameron panicked in July 2011 and set up the Leveson Inquiry. Like many who have used such a device to kick a can down the road, he's had plenty of reason since then to regret his impetuousness.

As the witnesses told terrible stories, the public worked itself into a state of fury and lobby groups such as Hacked Off formed to ensure that post-Leveson, their enemies would be debeaked and declawed.

On Wednesday, Leveson delivered to 10 Downing Street a 2,000 page-report Cameron had to comment on within 24-hours. Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader, received the report on Thursday morning and made it clear almost immediately that his party were accepting the whole unread report without reservation. Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, took the Miliband position, thus showing that the Liberal Democrats, who used to have a reputation for caring about liberty, have lost that particular plot in government.

It would have been easy for Cameron to make it unanimous, and many within his own party agreed, but he had the guts not to. He pointed out that parliamentary control of the press was abolished in 1695 and that to go with Leveson "would mean for the first time we have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into law of the land".

He feared that legislation "would create a vehicle for politicians whether today or in the future to impose regulations on the press". It's not that Cameron or those who agree with him think tough press regulation isn't necessary, it's just that those who are resisting the full Leveson package believe, firstly, that had the police been doing their job, journalists who broke the law by bribing hacking, stealing or committing other crimes would long ago have had their collars felt and been thrown in cells.

They believe, secondly, that over-stringent libel laws already inhibit the investigative journalism necessary to keep a democracy clean. And thirdly, they know the press is frightened out of its wits and will be desperate to cooperate with a form of self-regulation that means ordinary people have their grievances attended to quickly and justly and that newspapers pay heavily for their mistakes. Victims may be unhappy, but the uncomfortable truth is that their suffering doesn't entitle them to set the rules by which society operates.

Stephen Fry, normally ready to sneer at politicians with whom he disagrees was contemptuous. "The 'slippery slope' 'once we go down that path' 'thin end of the wedge' fallacies. Just plain drivelling botty-water. Grrr." He's as wrong as he's smug. Like most people in the public eye, politicians hate the press, so it's essential they're not entrusted with the tools to emasculate it. The moderates are right on this one.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards