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As press hail Cameron’s courage and strength, they know his betrayal of victims was an act of weakness

Posted on 30 November 2012 | 3:11pm

You did not have to be a genius to imagine there might have been a statutory element to the proposals brought forward by Lord Justice Leveson. Indeed, the longer the inquiry went on, the more his tone of questioning suggested such a move might happen.

Certainly, by the time David Cameron gave evidence, it was something that could not be ruled out. Given this was his inquiry – something Cameron’s aides were emphasizing last night after his immediate rejection of the most important proposal in the 2,000 page report – he could have indicated his serious misgivings back then, as Michael Gove did for example.

That he did not do so can probably be explained by the fact that at the time he set up the Inquiry his focus was not devising a new system of regulation, but parking the increasingly wretched issue of his relations with senior News International executives. The Inquiry was clearly a panic reaction to get him out of a political hole. Now he is digging another one.

At least with Gove and Boris Johnson, whatever their motives they have been clear through most of their careers, and certainly since Leveson began his work, that any kind of statutory role was a rubicon not to be crossed. No such strong view on grounds of principle has emerged from Cameron, until he set his eyes on the report, saw the word ‘statute’, and decided that mild-mannered and reasonable accusations of betrayal by victims of media abuse and criminality would be preferable to a sustained battering from the press if he went along with Leveson’s plan.His core team, who tend to play to his short-termism when they might be better advised to challenge it, will be scanning the papers today and celebrating the instant reaction. Cameron stands up for freedom, cry headline upon headline. Amid the mix are the voices of the Dowlers and the Watsons and the Milners saying that he made a promise and he broke it. But Cameron and his team will be saying those voices will fade, whereas the papers will churn out their views dressed as news day in day out, and for a while at least, the venom will be slowed for him, quickened for Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. Politicians being rewarded for pragmatism (provided it suits the vested interests of the press), and punished for adopting positions of principle.

Cameron could not have been kinder to the press. In making his rejection the main issue, he managed to deflect attention from the debate that might otherwise have taken place on the full extent of the depravity of media excess exposed in the report. In indicating that this was suddenly an issue of principle for him, he also removed any kind of meaningful threat should — as history would suggest is likely — the press fail to put together a proper plan for meaningful and tough self-regulation along the lines set out by the Leveson principles.

Having said publicly that there could be no more last chance saloons, and having said privately to the victims that provided the plans were not ‘bonkers’ he would implement them, he has placed a tab behind the bar for as many last chance booze ups as Murdoch, Dacre, et al might fancy. It is possible to agree or disagree with Leveson’s findings, but hard to see anything in there that could be described as bonkers.He now has a media which will play along with the line that the public are bored with all this talk about the press, there are bigger things to worry about, in any event they will behave a bit better for a while, before slowly, steadily reverting to type. Cameron yesterday had the chance to show leadership, as he did over his responses to the Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough Inquiries, but revealed instead that he is very good at doing and saying the right things when talking about other governments, but not when talking about his own. It really is quite hard to respect a Prime Minister who sets up an Inquiry, allows a judge to state in the first paragraph of his report, that he has the personal authority of the PM in the work he has done, and then see that authority taken away before the ink had dried. It leaves people wondering why we had the inquiry in the first place.

Of course, with or without statutory underpinning, there does have to be a new system of press regulation. But if editors and proprietors could not agree with the tame proposals put forward by Lords Hunt and Black (woefully exposed yesterday as spokesmen for the industry rather than voices of the public interest) it is hard to envisage an early coming together around the principles Leveson believes should be part of a new system. The fact that Hunt and Black are even still on the pitch indicates the determination of the industry to ensure it maintains a position of judge and jury of its own actions.

Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, meanwhile, need to be careful not to fall into the trap Cameron and his media pals will seek to lay for them, where it looks like this is all they care about, when the public continue to care more about jobs, the economy, cuts to public services. But they can take strength from the fact that the public are not stupid, and as the more rabid elements of the press swing behind Cameron, people will know the real reason has nothing to do with policy or principle, and everything to do with Cameron having sacrificed a national interest on the altar of his own fear.

The tragedy is that the fear is misplaced. Media power only exists if they are told they have it. In signalling his fear so clearly yesterday, Cameron has given them another dose of a medicine whose taste they love. The one that wrongly indicates to them that the Prime Minister needs them more than they need him.

But the politics of this is far from over. The latest court appearance yesterday of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks reminded us of the backdrop to all this, and now he has sided with the press against the victims, Cameron is even more closely identified with any fallout from continuing criminal cases and inquiries. Also, just as Miliband and Clegg were shocked by the speed with which the Prime Minister rejected the main proposal, so were some of his backbenchers. I bumped into two of them last night. ‘Pathetic,’ said one. ‘Incredible’, said the other.

They need to hold their nerve. So does Ed Miliband. So does Nick Clegg. Cameron is already indicating he has agreed to a draft Bill being prepared purely to show it is unworkable. He is also indicating that if he loses any kind of vote in the Commons on the issue, he will ignore it. But he will be weakened by it. Because the headlines today tell him he was being strong, he may even feel stronger. In truth it was an act of weakness, and as the debate develops one he might yet regret.

  • http://twitter.com/Hoopsdips Hoopsdips

    Cameron deserves to be buried by this. I only hope that Ed M has the nerve to see it through. Not sure that Nick Clegg can be relied on to provide any help.

  • Anonymous

    It was absolutely an act of strength, one of only two I can think of throughout his entire premiership, the other arguably being Libya.
    He has been weak on the banks, weak on the vickers report (which itself was weak), pitifully weak on the London riots last summer, weak on the unions, weak on the EU, and probably weak on a load of other things I have forgotten. Each time he has taken the wet, pressurised, left wing, non conservative way out. Yesterday finally he stood his ground as a conservative.
    With his stand yesterday, following on from Osborne’s brilliant appointment of Mark Carney (the man who proved the “global” financial crisis was no such thing despite what the Brownites say) this is easily the best week of Cameron and Osborne’s entire term. I shan’t hold my breath that we’ll see another.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Fifth estate.
    The real problem of the British press is that it is owned by rightwing billionaires.
    Should only Britons own newspapers in the UK? Only EU citizens?
    Should there be a cap on the number of titles one can own?
    The reaction to the Leveson by the Torygraph and Forger´s Gazette (as Michael Foot used to call the Mail) gives an impression that Stalinism has arrived in Britain.
    Leveson calls for a new system of regulation backed by force of LAW.
    Phone hacking, computer intrusion, harrasment, spying and bullying needs to stop.
    Intrusion to people´s private lives is seldom in public interest as Max Clifford has testified.
    As Harold Evans says in the Guardian, NEW SYSTEM OF SELF-REGULATION must be UNDERPINNED BY STATUTE.
    This gives credibility to regulators independent of government.
    Leveson believes that such statutory underpinning is ESSENTIAL.
    According to Harold Evans the biggest disappointment of Leveson is that he skates over the issue of OWNERSHIP.
    Law on competition was broken by Mrs T in 1981 in a secret deal which gave Times Newspapers to News International.
    Jeremy Hunt was also ready to offer BSkyB to Murdoch on a silver plate thus destroying the rest of the press.
    In 2009 police was more than happy to believe in the “one rogue reporter” theory in fear of News International.
    Cameron was keen to bury the case.
    Paul Dacre dismissed the claims of the Guardian.
    We live in a world dominated by money.
    Two leading banking families own 50% of global wealth. This gives them immense political power.
    Goldman Sachs, Bilderberg Group and Council on Foreign Relations rule.
    Instead of Paul Tucker George Osborne appointed his fellow Bilderberger Mark Carney (Goldman Sachs) as the governor of the BoE.
    Mario Draghi, head of European Central Bank, also worked for Goldman Sachs.
    The Bank of England, by the way, is not INDEPENDENT. It is being run by the private BIS (Rothschilds) based in Basel.
    Press must hold power to account.
    Press must tell that the disastrous AUSTERITY measures come from the Bilderberg Group.
    Press must tell, as Die Welt now does, that eurozone is heading for a TRANSFER UNION.
    Press must tell, as the Guardian does, that CIA gave the scientist Frank Olsen LSD.
    Press must tell that the “rescue” packages to Greece are a sham. And if the press does not tell all this, SOCIAL MEDIA must.
    Social media must become the fifth estate.
    it is our only hope.

  • Anonymous

    Clearly Cameron suffered a horrible press since he announced the Leveson enquiry and he longs to get back to the halcyon days of uncritical coverage. He is like a corrupt toad, squatting on the nation. To paraphrase Philip Larkin, we need something to drive the brute off.

    It is quite hard for the opposition to prevail, though – if all it requires is for the less edifying members of the press and the government’s right wing to remain in bed together and tell us what to think, democracy is in a very bad place.

    Yesterday’s edition of ‘This Week’ was particularly good. I am glad you called Cameron a wimp of a man – he is just a suit full of sawdust. As for the Sunday Times magazine editor who was talking airy fairy nonsense about the press regulating itself, you exposed her very well.

  • Anonymous

    Alastair. Cameron is a slag, a slut to Murdoch, and he still is. Rebekka and her mister, Coulson and all, tarts the lot of them, and he is trying desperately to bury it. See sense mun!
    Cameron should have been thrown out by now by a total vote of confidence with the Coulson business, and the longer he stays as PM, the more corruption will become acceptable. I really do not known what these MP tits are up to in the H of C!!! They are corroding the future seat of their pants, and I can’t see these rabbits seeing sense soon.
    What is going on in their minds?

  • Anonymous

    Rebekah Brooks horsey, Coulson – why is Cameron still PM, H of C? Tell me – should have been thrown out ages ago with a vote of corrupt no confidence. And with yesterdays performance should concerntrate your minds, MPs, from all corners.

    It is a disgrace what he said yesterday, a total disgrace – never mentioned that people should be put inside as soon as possible for breaking the law. But I know why, because Cameron was fed information against the law in opposition.

    Sort your shit out H of C MPs, you puppets!

  • Graeme

    Cameron is claiming that legislation isn’t necessary because he wants Dacre and Murdoch to support him in the 2015 election campaign.

  • http://www.facebook.com/william.schwitzer William Schwitzer

    Definitely an act of weakness on the part of Cameron, looks like he is STILL courting the press. But can someone tell me why Miliband doesn’t simply propose a Commons motion that Leveson be implemeted in full?

  • http://twitter.com/Janiete Janet Edwards

    As I understand it, Canada had a severe financial crisis in the early 90s. Subsequent regulations introduced to control reckless bank lending was the main reason they avoided the big banking crisis that hit the rest of us a few years ago.

    I hope Mark Carney is a good appointment but I don’t think he had to cope with the sort of problem Gordon Brown faced in 2008.

  • john Fitzpatrick

    Brilliant blog! Surely anyone can see that what Leveson has suggested is a small price to pay to regain the trust of the public! Broadcasters and Broadcast journalists work with a frame work of regulation ofcom/BBC Trust whatever body that maybe. Some excellent programs are broadcast Panorama, Exposure, Dispatches and Channel 4 News.

    The lie here is that this is an attack on free speech! It is not the new body will be there to give the public the right of redress if they have been unfairly treated! The Newspapers can print what they want, but need to make sure it is accurate and that it is in the public interest and not published just because it might sell newspapers!

    One thing that might come out of this is that we have newspapers that actually print new rather than salacious gossip.

    It may even raise the standards and me we end up with a better quality press!

  • http://www.facebook.com/rahighfield Arni Highfield

    I’ve become an instant fan of yours, after this inciteful and painfully honest assessment of the situation. As a lifelong Conservative supporter, I will probably vote UKIP next time, not because of immigration, but because of this complete lack of honour by Cameron. The man is a coward and an opportunist.

  • Dave Simons

    If we follow Larkin’s suggestion, a pitchfork might come in handy!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=662304153 Jon Gratton

    Perhaps someone can tell me why rules backed by the law of the land is infringing freedom of the press.?

    If you break the highway code you get a fine but your right to appeal is not silenced but hack a dead girls phone blag private information is not a crime because it was in the public interest.

    But who decides what is public interest and what is an invasion of privacy.

    it cannot be the editor of a newspaper or proprietor or IMPO any media linked person.

    So why not construct a panel of everyday people who have never worked in any sort of media job and let them decide on what is right or wrong..

    You don’t need degree’s in Law or politics to know what is right or wrong you just need common sense and a heart of stone.

    During this last year we have seen the best and worse of the British .character.

    We were all appalled at the revelations of Leveson and the show trial of M. Jacksons Murder trial.

    Then we had the Queens jubilee and the Olympics which lifted the British Spirit of fair play into the stratosphere and now we have this debatable decision by the PM who by public opinion has shut his ears and heart to the call for justice for the common people of this land.
    HE SHOULD RESIGN AS HIS DECISION MAKING IS TAINTED BY FEAR OF THE GUTTER PRESS

  • Paul Moody

    Excellent analysis.

  • Paul Moody

    Excellent analysis.

  • Anonymous

    They had a financial crisis yes, in those days they were even more socialist than us, and along with Sweden who had also gotten too socialist, they hit the inevitable crises that socialism brings in the early 90s. The silver lining was that they reformed banks and government and were then better prepared for future shocks, and yes their banking system was more robust than ours, but so was their government, having adopted a successful austerity programme, and a genuine one unlike our phoney one. So their banks and their government were in a less leveraged, more robust position than ours by the time the crisis came round.
    In that sense Carney had it easier than Brown and Mervyn King, but the important thing is that Brown and Mervyn King were not just hit by a “Global” Financial Crisis outside of their control, they were among its principal architects!
    Carney cannot be said to be entirely responsible for what went before him, but nor did he make the mistakes of Brown and King, and his conduct throughout the crisis was exemplary – he still had to cope with bleating banks and businesses asking for corporate welfare but he refused to bailout or stimulate – good man.

  • Anonymous

    They had a financial crisis yes, in those days they were even more socialist than us, and along with Sweden who had also gotten too socialist, they hit the inevitable crises that socialism brings in the early 90s. The silver lining was that they reformed banks and government and were then better prepared for future shocks, and yes their banking system was more robust than ours, but so was their government, having adopted a successful austerity programme, and a genuine one unlike our phoney one. So their banks and their government were in a less leveraged, more robust position than ours by the time the crisis came round.
    In that sense Carney had it easier than Brown and Mervyn King, but the important thing is that Brown and Mervyn King were not just hit by a “Global” Financial Crisis outside of their control, they were among its principal architects!
    Carney cannot be said to be entirely responsible for what went before him, but nor did he make the mistakes of Brown and King, and his conduct throughout the crisis was exemplary – he still had to cope with bleating banks and businesses asking for corporate welfare but he refused to bailout or stimulate – good man.

  • ThursdayNext

    Mr Campbell (Call me Alistair?)

    An astute and elegant analysis of the current dilemma facing Cameron, who has boxed himself in and is arguably heading for a well-deserved fall. I’ll be following this blog on the strength of it.

    What you omit, however, is Leveson’s criticism of the part that New Labour and its spin machine played in promoting the culture of obeisance paid by politicians to Murdoch and chums that simply encouraged the press barons to get way with murder (hat tip to Tom Watson’s book).

  • Dave Simons

    If you’re looking for architects try people like Hayek, Friedman, Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher and Reagan. They were the principal architects and evangelists. People like Brown and King were too wary of challenging the free market orthodoxy that had been ushered in by these people, and it was that orthodoxy which led to the global financial crisis. I wonder what you’d be saying if Tony Blair had lost the 2005 General Election and the crisis had happened under the watch of Howard or Cameron? Would that have been an inevitable crisis of socialism too?

  • johnmashley

    i seem to remember a gentleman, standing at the top of a flight of steps, holding a piece of paper in his hands and declaring ‘peace in our time’, who was similarly reluctant to ‘cross the rubican’.

  • http://www.facebook.com/anthony.gerard.900 Anthony Gerard

    Most of the Newspapers who are foaming at the mouth about the possible introduction of limited statutory Press regulation are already members of statutory Press Regulation in the Republic of Ireland and never complain –
    ( The Irish Press Council ).

    The Irish Press Council is a working model for Britain. All of the Irish editions of the Murdoch Papers and the Irish Daily Mail are big supporters of the Irish system in Ireland but they hide this from the British public. It works fine and both Press and public are happy with it.

    The tabloid Press needs to be cleaned up. The Broadsheets are already ethical. Tabloid papers have relished destroying peoples lives and reputations, sometimes when its deserved but also when the Editor or Owner simply dislikes someone.

    No one wants to ” muzzle the press”. People just want the tabloid press to stop breaking the law and targeting innocent people as the News of the World did. If a story is in the public interest, it must be published.

  • harbinger

    For the first and I hope the last time I actually agree with every word Alastair says here. Cameron indeed has calculated it is better to cosy up to the media than doing right by the victims. After all the victims aren’t going to keep him power and Cameron is himself a creature of the media having been a PR spokesman for Carlton TV.

  • Anonymous

    You can apportion some blame to Keith Joseph and Thatcher, a lot less to Reagan. Friedman can certainly be blamed as he installed monetarism, which is basically just slow motion keynesianism, using monetary stimulus instead of fiscal stimulus. It is socialism of the money supply, so is having a central bank at all.
    You cannot blame Hayek however who did not believe in central banks, and certainly not government controlled money, let alone low interest rates (totally anti capitalist), or bank bailouts (the most anti capitalist action imaginable.)
    You also have to blame Clinton (if Reagan had repealed Glass Steagal and started the housing boom who would we blame?) And of course George Bush for his low interest rate policies. But you know what – you can’t blame them for Canada’s problems because it didn’t have any problems, even though it is an intrinsically linked neighbour to the USA – yet Labour want to blame our problems on the USA!? Come off it!
    Big question coming in next post.

  • Anonymous

    You are normally reasonable Dave so I want you to help me answer your own question. To what extent can politicians blame previous and external factors for what happens on their watch? Obviously Labour cannot legitimately blame a “Global Financial Crisis started in America” because it wasn’t global, it didn’t hit Canada and quite a few other robust economies. Likewise Cameron and Osborne cannot blame the eurozone for their troubles. Likewise I think the point has passed where they can blame the last labour government – if such a point ever existed, because they agreed with all labours policies! Ie high spending, no bank reform, no bubble popping, and finally bailouts.
    So yes if it had happened on Camerons watch (and it would have) then I would blame him and I would still blame socialism. To be more accurate I would blame that worst of both worlds we have – pure capitalism or pure socialism would not have had such a crisis, ie if we had enough regulation, or conversely no regulation.

    But lets take it further – can Thatcher blame the recession she got on James Callaghan and the Labour govt 74-79, can she blame the unemployment on them? No that would be ridiculous wouldn’t it – she could have taken actions that would have caused reform but without all the unemployment – Reagan managed it, she didn’t, hence I hate it when people put the two side by side.
    Therefore I think it is quite quite mad for people to be in power for 13 years here, starting almost 7-9 years after Thatcher and Reagan were out of power, and then blame their problems on Thatcher and Reagan!
    The great thing about this crash was the “right” were in charge in America and the “left” here so all the things they would both like to say about each other are moot. People cannot call George Bush an idiot without calling Barack Obama and George Bush idiots too, as all 3 followed the exact same policies, and Cam would have too given the choice.

  • Dave Simons

    Sorry about late reply – been having a problem getting on this blog.

    ‘Can Thatcher blame the recession she got on James Callaghan and the Labour govt 74-79, can she blame the unemployment on them?’

    Certainly she could if it was true. It wasn’t though – the recession of 1980-81 was caused by her policies. The only question in my mind is to what extent it was deliberate. I think – like engineering the 1984 Miners’ Strike using Nick Ridley’s proposals of 1978 – it was a deliberate policy, part of her attack on the unions.

    New Labour could blame its problems on Thatcher if it hadn’t adopted a lot of her policies. The trouble is Labour had to become New Labour to get itself elected, so a lot of it is down to us, the electorate. A lot of us are still entrenched in the neo-liberal orthodoxy that got us into our present mess in the first place. State control of the economy happened because unregulated capitalism made a mess of things periodically and especially in 1929 onwards. But a lot of us have forgotten that, or we never knew it in the first place. It sounds good though – ‘free’ enterprise, private ‘individualism’, ‘freedom’ of trade, ‘free enterprise’. I’ve no problem with state control if we control the state. The problem is when the state controls us. The trouble is that a lot of us let it.

    Generally though I’m fed up listening to politicians of all shades lying with statistics, backed up by this or that partial think-tank or this or that pundit talking as if they know what they’re talking about. We have real problems and they need real solutions – not simple black and white solutions like the kind that UKIP proposes. There must be sensible, mature people about somewhere and I wish I could find them. It would be such a refreshing change from Kate’s morning sickness!