In My Opinion: John McLellan: Why diplomacy is key to the Leveson process

YOU won’t have to go far to find those who believe Lord Leveson’s plan to reform the British Press hasn’t gone far enough. For many of those who have howled the loudest about the behaviour of the British Press, no direct statutory control equals cop-out.

On the other hand, there will be no shortage of voices complaining that, even without any suggestion of legislation, the plans for the future of Press regulation go too far.

The proposals for reform laid out a year ago by Lord Hunt, the chair of the Press Complaints Commission, were too much for many in the industry to swallow; those people who failed to grasp the phone-hacking scandal and its mishandling by the PCC meant the old system was dead and a tougher regime was on its way, no matter what.

It has been a hard road, to say the least, and there is a long way to go. Probably years of haggling and manoeuvering are still to be endured before a stable settlement is reached. It took Ireland five years to put its reformed Press Council on solid ground and the situation here is much more complex, especially in Scotland with the Scottish Government now hinting at a parallel system to run alongside the new UK regime of which the bigger Scottish publications will unquestionably be part.

As expected, Lord Leveson hasn’t pulled his punches in condemning the practices which led to the setting up of his inquiry – or the system which was supposed to control the Press. And while he has praised the efforts of Lord Hunt and Lord Black to produce a new system of self-regulation, he has made it very clear he does not think their proposals are satisfactory.

And that will be no surprise to their Lordships.

While Lord Leveson encouraged the Press to come up with its own plans, it was widely understood that he would want to be able to put his own stamp on the development of Press regulation. So the proposals from Hunt and Black for reform left him room to add to the plans and be seen to be critical at the same time.

The amount of effort behind the inquiry and the production of the report has been more than matched by the behind-the-scenes diplomacy to get this far.

So the operational framework backed by Leveson largely mirrors that proposed by Hunt and Black. It’s all in there: an investigatory arm, the power to fine, the ability to negotiate compensation and the enhanced ‘Reynolds defence’ against defamation.

While there are other smaller additions from Leveson, such as whistleblower’s rights, the main difference is in his proposals for the membership and structure of the institutions, which Hunt and Black would have had great difficulty in getting through the industry, anyway.

In many respects, what Leveson has proposed is where Hunt and Black would have been prepared to go anyway but their paymasters would not. Despite the fact that lay members more than dominate the day-to-day work of the PCC – including very big beasts such as Michael Grade, Michael Smyth and Jeremy Roberts – the perception is of a system totally under the control of the industry. That is no longer tenable and major change is inevitable at the very least to change perceptions.

As long as the selection system weeds out potential members who are just in it to give the Press a kicking (and some slipped through in the past) the industry should not fear greater lay involvement in its bodies. Indeed, in my experience, some lay commissioners were more passionate supporters of a free Press than some of the editors.

So far, so consensual. The big stumbling blocks, as seen by the difference of opinion between the Prime Minister and his deputy, is on the need for statutory underpinning.

Correctly in my view, and not because he is ultimately my boss, David Cameron has called it right at this point.

Statutory intervention would be a massive step and the reformed system should be given the chance to show what it can do without the need for legislation. Nick Clegg, in line with Ed Milliband, wants to see a rush to legislation. It’s the old mantra of ‘something must be done’. Well, something has been done and it is vastly different to the previous discredited system. Legislation means politicians, and the last thing the protection afforded to democracy by a free Press needs is political interference.

But speed is of the essence and an enhanced Hunt-Black plan needs to implemented without delay.

It’s five months since I left the PCC and things may be different now, but, in the year prior to my departure, the process of change was slowed by interminable debate about such minutiae as the legal rights of commissioners and suchlike. Hopefully, the change in governenance established over the summer will mean Lord Hunt can move much more quickly to set up the new structure, even if ultimately he restructures himself out of a job. I somehow doubt he’ll be unhappy at the prospect.

“A new system in which the public has confidence,” was very much Lord Hunt’s mantra when he succeeeded Baroness Peta Buscombe last year and, while that should remain the goal for the system, it should not mean that journalists cannot push the boundaries.

To use the example of rugby, the All Blacks are the best team in the world because they know how to play just within the laws; they push, bend, test, distort and ultimately break the rules when they can get away with it. A truly robust and free Press will similarly push and, yes, occasionally break the rules when necessary. That is as it should be.

The test is whether there is justification for rule-breaking. The problem at the News of the World was that law-breaking was the rule, not the exception. The law was broken just to see what came up. That can never be justified. But can a phone be hacked to uncover a fraud or other serious crime? Of course it can.

So, I tire of hearing sanctimonious regional journalists and managers saying piously they would never break the law. Yet which one of them wish the MPs’ expenses story had never been published? Which one of them didn’t report on the claims of their own representatives? That’s right, they were all happy a newspaper brought to light information which came from receiving stolen goods.

As Lord Chief Justice Judge pointed out, a truly free Press will, on occasion go as far as to break the law. And as was commented this week, the ‘last chance saloon’ is where a vibrant Press should always be.

Change must come, the regime will be more difficult to deal with, but don’t let anyone expect the new rules will not get broken and there will not be scandals in the future.

I sincerely hope there will be. The test should not be if there are more controversies but how the new system deals with them.

John McLellan is a former editor of The Scotsman. He is also a former member of the Press Complaints Commission. He is writing this in a personal capacity. He is currently director of communications at the Scottish Conservatives.