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The Prisoner of Fleet Street

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Tim Gopsill says Cameron has failed to grasp Leveson's neutered nettle.

The fate of Lord Justice Leveson's measured proposals for media reform shows what happens when you try to be reasonable with the owners and editors of the national press.

The judge produced a report, for all the outrage expressed at the conduct of the popular press, with relatively modest proposals.

Not a single person has differed from the conclusion that tougher regulation is needed; not even the Prime Minister, yet David Cameron still contrived to reject the whole thing by refusing to countenance the legislative authority needed to establish the body to do it.

Brian Cathcart, the former national paper editor who runs the Hacked Off? campaign, said the Leveson had “designed the report to be helpful to Cameron ... a workable and reasonable solution."

He said Leveson had done the job asked of him by the Prime Minister, but Cameron had not done his job of accepting the conclusions.

The reaction of the Prime Minister just confirms the persistence of the malady that led to the inquiry in the first place. David Cameron is the prisoner of the newspaper owners and editors who have ramped up a deranged campaign of attack on any suggestion of serious regulation.

Of course they will defend their territory. Of course they want to keep things as close as possible to the way they are. Of course to protect their power they will lie and bully and threaten. And Prime ministers will cave in to them.

This overwhelming media power was precisely the problem Leveson was set up to deal with, and precisely why radical change is needed.

Ministers are professing that they accept the report in full, simply recoiling at the possibility of statutory intervention. But this is wholly disingenuous, because without legislation their promises to respect the outcome of the inquiry are empty.

In terms of addressing the problem of media power, the report in fact does not go far enough. Leveson has ignored all the evidence from the CPBF, the Media Reform Coalition and others on the need to set limits on the range of media any company can control.

As the CPBF has been warning, Leveson sidestepped his own requirement to address questions of media plurality and cross-ownership. All part of the judge's doomed attempts to make the report Cameron-friendly, with nothing too hazardous within it.

Instead there are vague invocations of the importance of plurality but no measures to ensure it is maintained. Indeed, the power to approve or stop media mergers and takeovers that make big companies even bigger should remain, Leveson says, with the Secretary of State rather than move to the regulators or competition authorities.

It's back to Jeremy Hunt and BSkyB , when a politician was able safely to steer a massive takeover through – until it fell apart under the pressure of outside events.

That continues to be the lesson for the CPBF and others campaigning for media reform: government will try to close things down and leave the press alone.

And the campaigners who got the BSkyB deal stopped and forced the Leveson process to be launched must do it again. As campaigning Labour MP John McDonnell says on the CPBF podcast on the Leveson report, the real work starts now.

The podcast will be on this site soon.

DATELINE: 29 November, 2012


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