Over many years, politicians of all parties got too close to editors and proprietors in a way that damaged the public interest, and one result was the persistent failure of governments to do anything about press standards even when the public was crying out for action.
That was among the less surprising findings of Lord Justice Leveson in his report on the press, the politicians and the police. Keenly aware that his own efforts might fall victim to the same old press-politician stitch-up, the judge made three recommendations – numbers 82 to 84 – that were specifically designed to give the public confidence that this time things would go differently.
Two months have passed since the Leveson Report was published, so it is worth checking how far the politicians have got in complying with the judge’s wishes. Bear in mind that every party leader broadly welcomed the report when it was published and that no one took issue with the three proposals that related to the conduct of politicians.
Let’s start with recommendation 82:
‘I recommend as a first step that political leaders reflect constructively on the merits of publishing on behalf of their party a statement setting out, for the public, an explanation of the approach they propose to take as a matter of party policy in conducting relationships with the press.’
Progress on this to date: none. Not one party or party leader has yet, to our knowledge, published a statement explaining their policy on conducting relationships with the press.
How about recommendation 83?
‘Party leaders, ministers and front bench opposition spokesmen should consider publishing the simple fact of long term relationships with media proprietors, newspaper editors or senior executives which might be thought to be relevant to their responsibilities; and [they should also consider publishing] on a quarterly basis:
– details of all meetings with media proprietors, newspaper editors or senior executives, whether in person or through agents on either side, and the fact and general nature of any discussion of media policy issues at those meetings; and
– a fair and reasonably complete picture by way of general estimate only, of the frequency or density of other interaction (including correspondence, phone, text and email) but not necessarily including content.’
Progress to date: none. In fact it is worse than that, because although David Cameron solemnly promised back in July 2011 that ‘all meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors, editors and senior executives will be published quarterly’ he already seems to have stopped bothering. If you look at the Cabinet Office website it appears that the latest entries for Cameron and Nick Clegg still date from June 2012 – more than two quarters in arrears.
And recommendation 84?
‘The suggestions that I have made in the direction of greater transparency about meetings and contacts should be considered not just as a future project but as an immediate need, not least in relation to interactions relevant to any consideration of this report.’
Progress to date: again, none. Transparency, the judge says, is an immediate need. Why? Because if the politicians and the press are not open about their dealings when they respond to the Leveson report, then anything that emerges from those dealings is certain to be seen as a sleazy deal. Nobody will doubt that the two sides – in keeping with their long tradition in these matters – have stitched up a shady arrangement that is in their own interests and not the public’s.
When Leveson speaks of an immediate need he surely means that politicians have to be open and transparent in as near as they can manage to real time. If we want to have confidence in the actions of ministers on press regulation this week, we surely need to know who they were talking to last week. And we need that reassurance all the more now because, thanks to Cameron, ministers are busy meddling in ways that Leveson warned against.
How many editors, proprietors and senior media executives has the prime minister met since last June, and how often, and in what circumstances? We know that – amazingly –he met Rebekah Brooks before Christmas; how many conversations has he had with Lord Black? What editors did he meet during the party conference season? How many phone calls has he taken from Rupert Murdoch? Ditto the culture secretary, Maria Miller, and the policy minister, Oliver Letwin.
Labour and the Lib Dems, too, are required by the Leveson report to be open about their contacts. They are participating in weekly cross-party meetings on Leveson, where editors were apparently allowed to make their case, but where are the agendas and minutes of those meetings, and of any others that engage the press?
To be clear: Leveson never said that politicians should not meet editors. All he said was that, given the toxic history of the relationship, they owed it to the public to be open about it. That is not a lot to ask, but apparently it is too much for our politicians, and that does not bode well for the eventual outcome of a year-long public inquiry.
What about us? Hacked Off has met ministers and frontbench spokesmen of all three main parties on several occasions since the Leveson report was published, and on most of those occasions we have issued statements afterwards. We have entered into these meetings not to negotiate anything, but to press the case on behalf of our supporters and victims of press abuses that Leveson’s press regulation recommendations must be implemented in full, and that they are the very least that is required to protect the public.
And in every single meeting we have repeated that simple warning from Leveson: the more the politicians meddle behind the scenes, the less the public will trust the outcome.
Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.