Sun Nov 25th, 2012 at 02:19:50 AM EST
Since the end of the formal witness interview section of the Leveson Inquiry, we have had a variety of people in what appears to be an almost coordinated attack on the upcoming report, culminating in last week's Daily Mail poison pen letter to the world about one of Lord Justice Leveson's assessors.
The bullying attitude of the press has been in full flow against something they have yet to see. The attitude is that the end of the world is coming, and that Britain is on the verge of being reduced to little better than a dictatorship. Witness Fraser Nelson in yesterday's Telegraph:
Call a truce, before centuries of free speech are brought to an end - Telegraph
It is not quite clear at what stage Conservatives stopped thinking that freedom of speech is important, but we have a useful point of comparison. Five years ago, the then Labour-dominated Culture, Media & Sport Committee made a powerful declaration in a report. "Statutory regulation of the press," it concluded, "is a hallmark of authoritarianism and risks undermining democracy." This was a point of principle: you can't have a little bit of state control, any more than you can be a little bit pregnant. Either the press is free, or it must operate within parameters defined by the state. Bahrain made its choice. And soon, so will Britain.
I suggest that he looks at the bottom of what is normally the back page of most newspapers. There you will see in small print: "Registered as a newspaper at the post office". Now this relates to the Newspaper Libel and Registration Act 1881, and Companies House has this to say about registration:
Newspaper Libel and Registration Act - GP03
Section 1 of the Newspaper Libel and Registration Act 1881 (the Act) defines a 'newspaper' as any paper containing public news, intelligence, or occurrences, or any remarks or observations therein printed for sale, and published in England, Wales or Ireland periodically, or in parts or numbers at intervals not exceeding 26 days between the publication of any two papers, parts or numbers. This Act does not cover Scotland.
Also any paper printed in order to be dispersed, and made public weekly or more frequently (but not at intervals exceeding 26 days) containing only or principally advertisements.
Now further to this there are exemptions to this under which registration is not needed, but why does this law, which appears to offer minor defence against libel actions and a reduced postage rate for newspapers, not equally form the "thin end of the wedge" which is being screamed about? Does this thin end of the wedge not matter if the newspapers are making a few pennies on the deal?
What can Cameron do? There's a big push for him to kick it into the long grass, do nothing as the public is no longer angry, let it die down even further and then forget about things, leave the status quo till the next scandal 20 years down the road. But is this a tenable approach?
If he was to follow this line, what would the consequences be? The majority of people who have looked at this have commented purely on the voting numbers, the amount of votes that Cameron can guarantee for the inevitable vote, or the amount of support he can see at the next election, essentially by bribing the press for electoral support. There is a danger however in this short-term view being adopted. If we look at the next couple of years, the initial court date for Coulson, Brooks et al is September 2013. However it has been widely commentated that the date will slip by roughly a year, as decisions are made whether to add other charges into the main case and further cases with other arrestees are added in from Operation Elveden, Weeting and Tuletta. On top of this there is the possibility of a second round of delays where a Scottish court case has to be fitted into the schedule. Each of these will push the court case further and further towards the 2015 election date. So whilst superficially attractive to put the regulation of the press off, or even to take no action for short term political gain, there may well be a major price to pay when trials happen less than six months out from the next general election.
Judging by Cameron's normal PR based view which appears to be based around keeping the next day's papers clear, rather than dealing with long term problems, I wouldn't bet on him not choosing to avoid the present problem and finding the crisis re-emerging at a point where it can do much more damage to him. If ever there was a point in time where Nick Clegg could put clear yellow water between himself and the Tory party, what better opportunity than six months before the election when Cameron's former right-hand man was up before a judge?
The next week all will become clear.