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Columnists

Paper thin excuses

Paul Vallely

VallelyOne moment summed up for me the long and labyrinthine saga that was Leveson. Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, appeared on the Today programme the morning after the mammoth inquiry issued its report into the ethics of the press - and its dubious relationships with both police and politicians.

Only minutes before she appeared, the programme had interviewed one of most grievous victims of the intrusion, mendacity and casual malice of the press, Gerry McCann, whose daughter Madeleine vanished in Portugal in 2007. McCann, with his wife Kate, have had to put up with five years of innuendo insinuating that the parents killed the little girl. The McCanns, who have conducted themselves with a tortured dignity as they coped with the open-ended horror of their daughter having disappeared, had given evidence to Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into the press. At the end they had felt that the judge's report did not go far enough - they wanted 'a properly independent [statutory] regulation of the press' - but, Gerry McCann told Radio 4 listeners, they were prepared to welcome the Leveson recommendations so long as they were implemented in full
Immediately afterwards the Tory Culture Secretary came onto the same programme and twisted the words of Madeleine's father within minutes of him delivering them. Ms Miller claimed that self-regulation by the press was what the McCanns wanted to see - despite the fact that Gerry McCann had just said the exact opposite.

There is nothing so deceitful as the human heart,  said Jeremiah, though since I am a journalist you had better go check the exact quote yourself (17:9).  Deception, duplicity and self-delusion have been threads woven continuously through the Leveson fabric. They have characterised the testimony of press barons, tabloid hacks and politicians right up to the Prime Minister.
David Cameron ducked and weaved throughout the entire process. He originally set up the inquiry to divert attention from the row over his decision to employ as his chief spin doctor a former News International executive implicated in the phone-hacking scandal. When it became clear, as the inquiry proceeded, that Leveson had statutory measures in mind the PM loosed his vocrabulous attack dog, Michael Gove, to undermine the process.

When that failed to win public sympathy Mr Cameron told the inquiry it should be about protecting 'the people who've been...  thrown to the wolves by this process'. It would only be adjudged a success if it passed what he called 'the victim test'. There could be no more 'last chance saloons' for the press. Provided Leveson's recommendations were not 'bonkers' he would implement them, he pledged. Yet within hours of the 2,000-page report being released he took to the dispatch box to oppose its main recommendation: that the press should be regulated by law to prevent further wrongdoing. The victims said he had betrayed them.

Of course the press almost universally said the opposite, which no doubt confirmed Mr Cameron in his judgement that it was better to disillusion the victims than the editors who will set the tone for how the Conservative's next election campaign is viewed. It was, the received wisdom has it, 'The Sun wot won it' in previous elections. Editors and ministers went into a huddle to come up with a new system of self-regulation, which amounted to Mr Cameron setting up yet another tab behind the bar in the notorious Last Chance. Word was that the PM had instructed lawyers to draw up a draft bill to implement Leveson which is so daunting, complex and cumbersome that it will frighten off anyone worried about the freedom of the press. Newspapers have leaned into this with huge hoo-haa, hype and hyperbole about Rubicons and Soviet-style press censors sitting in every newspaper office.

Such talk is over-inflated as well as self-serving. We need laws because people cannot be trusted to stick to their good resolutions and fine intents. Maria Miller showed that. So did David 'so long as it's not bonkers' Cameron. So have countless journalists, and not only in the catalogue of shame paraded before Sir Brian Leveson. There is nothing so deceitful as the human heart.

One of the greatest pieces of cynicism is the repeated assertion that a statutory underpinning to press regulation will somehow lead inevitably to a curtailing of press freedom. Statutory is used as bogey word as if there could be no variation in what a statute actually says. There are, as the media lawyer David Allen Green has pointed out, 85 statutes which already regulate the work of journalists - from the Contempt of Court Act and the Magistrates' Court Act to the Data Protection Act and the Computer Misuse Act.

Judges, doctors and lawyers are all regulated by statute and yet have freedom of conscience and action. The BBC is regulated by statute and charter yet it does not produce state-licensed journalism. Its reporting is untrammelled by nothing more than a requirement for political impartiality, particularly during elections. Indeed, despite a few recent high-profile exceptions, BBC journalism sets the gold-standard by which the rest of us are judged. It is far more a guarantor of democracy than the manipulative distortions of newspapers doing the bidding of their megalamillionaire owners.

Press and politicians may continue to believe that it is The Sun wot wins it. But opinion polls show that the public is not fooled. People understand that it can only be the law - and cheap and easy access to it - which holds political and corporate power to account. What the press and politicians will now do is try to drag the issue out until the steam has gone from public outrage. It will be interesting to see if campaigners can sustain that indignation until the next election.

Paul Vallely