I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week, and here are some things that might be worth bearing in mind.
A couple of years ago we started seeing the edges of the what happens when politicians, the media, and the police collude together. That was the real scandal. That close relationship led to laws not being enforced, criminal activities going uninvestigated and on their being no will to create good laws to govern politicians, the police, or the media.
Many people will remember David Cameron telling Leveson that they wouldn’t find a smoking gun. That there were no emails detailing a deal done between the Conservative leader and the Murdoch papers. And we all howled at the screen “That’s exactly the point!”
The deep corruption of our public life didn’t need accompanying paperwork. The rules were implicit and understood by all. Pursuing the agendas of media conglomerates while in power came with substantial rewards. Looking the other way when the media broke the law also came with substantial rewards. Politicans deliberately made bad laws, the police didn’t enforce those, and everyone retired with a highly-paid column on law and order at the end of it.
Then the cracks started to show. We saw policemen in charge of the investigation into phone hacking taking champagne suppers with News International. Secretaries of State chummily texting those whose mergers they were meant to be overseeing. Prime Ministers going riding newspaper editors’ horses. Which came to them from the police. Every stone that was turned let loose a new waft of corruption.
And to root out the deep corruption at the heart of three of our fundamental institutions, what did we do? We split it up.
Leveson looked at press intrusion, and the failures of the PCC. Operation Elveden is looking at the police’s failure to investigate press criminality sooner. The MPs are pretending that because they put IPSA in place a few years ago they’ve already mead enough culpas.
We heard how the mighty press dwarfed poor old politicans, who only had every arm of the state at their disposal. All that they could do was weep into their cornflakes, and wait to retire so that they could cash in.
The activities of the press weren’t the fundamental problem, though. The collusion of politicans with the media (not wanting to refer the Sky bid to the Competition Commission, say), of media with politicians (bumping a story about the Chancellor’s youthful cocaine use to page 5), of police with the media (taking them for champagne dinners), and of the media with police (reporting disinformation whenever necessary), and the manifest failure of any of those institutions to have any sense of duty to the public were the problem.
I’m not one who is going to shout about ‘a free press’. We already don’t have a free press. D-notices, some of the planet’s most-backward libel laws, and all sorts of laws about speech and communication make any idea that we have a free press laughable. (Also, it’s telling that here we harp on about ‘a free press’. Not ‘free speech’, something quantifiable that applies to all of us and is a fundamental right, but ‘a free press’, which is ‘freedom to speak as long as you own a newspaper’.)
However, the problem isn’t the newspapers. The problem was never the newspapers. The despicable actions of some newspapers were a symptom of the deep sickness that plagues this country’s institutions.
When the problem is bad laws made by bad politicans, and ones unenforced by the police, the solution isn’t more bad laws from more bad politicians, which we shall depend on the police to enforce.