Will Leveson inquiry leave us with more than happy memories?
Lord Leveson is in a very familiar dilemma: take on the press and be savaged, or roll over and be dismissed as a patsy
IN THESE hard times, we should all be grateful to Lord Justice Leveson. His inquiry into the ethics and misdeeds of the press is giving us a splendid summer of fun. Whether it will ever produce anything more than light entertainment remains to be seen.
The Government's idea in setting up Leveson was to divert attention away from the Tory leadership's close links to Rupert Murdoch and his empire. But as Tony Blair, who gave evidence to the inquiry yesterday, discovered when he established the Hutton inquiry into the death of the scientist, David Kelly, you never know when such stratagems might backfire.
Having its private workings pored over in public is never going to be good news for any organisation, let alone a government. Yet when it came to Leveson, Downing Street woke up to this danger surprisingly late in the day. It was only a few weeks ago, when the first batch of emails and texts highlighting the intimacy between senior Tories and the Murdoch high command were released by the inquiry, that senior ministers thought to get themselves formally registered as interested parties to the proceedings.
At least this should mean that if there are to be any more embarrassing revelations about smoochy texts or police horses, the Prime Minister and his embattled Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, will be prepared for them. Hunt's appearance this week is being widely seen as career defining, whereas for Cameron, in a fortnight's time, it is more likely to be the sort of essay crisis he has always excelled at.
There is no doubt, though, that the snapshots of the PM's lifestyle which we have already been treated to, many of them courtesy of the inquiry, have been hugely damaging, not least in his own party. Tory MPs, who had hoped Leveson would provide payback for the humiliations heaped on them by the press during the expenses scandal, are horrified that it has instead turned into an examination of the Downing Street inner circle.
Where Cameron can take some comfort is that, while the inquiry may have engrossed the London elite, for the rest of the country most of it has been of peripheral interest at best. Neither the string of celebrities and politicians complaining that their phones were hacked, nor the revelation that media moguls and senior politicians like to hobnob together, have exactly shocked the public.
It is also hard to see what will actually come out of Leveson. The main malpractices revealed so far, phone hacking, bribing policemen etc, are already criminal offences. There are rules, too, to prevent any one company acquiring too dominant a role in any particular industry, which was the fear if News International had succeeded in gaining 100 per cent of BSkyB.
None of these laws and rules has proved to be ineffective or out of date. Rather the problem was that politicians of all parties, and the police as well, were too scared to enforce them on the press. But that is no longer the case with News International. Prosecutions for what happened at the News of the World are widely expected, and the Murdoch bid for full control of BSkyB is off the table.
So, against this background, what can Leveson come up with that is both new and likely to be effective? Yesterday he indicated that he is thinking, among other things, about ways to give those wronged by the press quicker and cheaper redress. Even the newspapers themselves might welcome parts of that. Growing competition from new digital media may also erode their influence as their readerships continue to fall.
Yet while it may be in decline, the press will certainly outlive the Leveson inquiry. As the judge himself appeared to recognise in his parting remarks to Mr Blair yesterday, this leaves him facing very much the same dilemma as that grappled with over the years by the politicians he is enquiring into; take the papers on, and risk seeing his report savaged and kicked into the long grass, or tread warily and be dismissed as a patsy.
Lord Justice Leveson does not look like anyone's patsy. But as he must be uneasily aware, after he has finished sitting in judgement on the press, it will pass judgement on his report - and it is the press that will have the last word.