Tuesday 19 March 2013

This Is About Who Runs The Country

Polly Toynbee writes:

The real Rubicon is a shallow, muddy river, so who crossed it yesterday? It doesn't look as if Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg even wet their socks, since they won everything of importance. The regulator has a statutory underpin, the press can't veto who sits on the regulatory body, which can impose fat fines and direct apologies as prominent as the offending article. The press is free, but the balance is tilted a little in favour of the citizen against bare-knuckle thuggery.

If many yawned through interminable twists and wriggles in making the press obey its own code, most grasped the essentials. People knew that the press engages in filthy practices – being caught red-handed hacking phones is just one – as paparazzi probe the most private places, Benji the Binman scavenges rubbish or police take bribes for tipoffs. Nothing is too low, from the yellow-press dawn of time. The public rightly snort in derision at high-flown cant about press freedom while scoundrels brandish quotes from Milton and Orwell as cover to let them bully as they please.

This is about who runs the country – a democratically elected parliament with strong public support on this or Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay brothers and the Mail's Paul Dacre, strong-arming politicians to their will. Now these owners and the Newspaper Society give warning that they may not agree to sign up. They may walk away, and if any get a punitive fine they may take it to Europe (oh, the irony) and hope it gets struck out after years of delay. Do they really dare this trial of strength? If so, public opinion will be the arbiter between press and parliament – and the press will be the loser.

The Leveson inquiry cost £6m, which was expensive long grass, if that's what David Cameron hoped for. As his team struggled to appease both Murdoch and the Hacked Off victims, it was in character that the prime minister suddenly walked out of all-party talks, straight into a press conference to announce he was siding with the press barons after all. It was also in character to find he had made a bad error, spun on his heel and plunged straight back into talks after all. Beating him in a Commons vote would have been a Miliband triumph, with Clegg at his side and a cohort of Tory MPs too.

All this took bravery. First medal to Miliband, who first called for a judge-led inquiry and the sacking of Rebekah Brooks. It was he who stopped Cameron and Jeremy Hunt handing over all of Sky to Murdoch – which would have paved the way for the Foxification of British TV. By calling a vote in the Commons on Sky, Miliband forced Murdoch to withdraw his bid, shaming Cameron for even considering it. Clegg was late to the table, but his decision to lead his troops to vote with Labour was vital.

Another bravery medal goes to the 20 Tories who threatened to vote against their own side to support the opposition. Many Tories who signed a pro-Leveson letter got a full monstering in the Mail and Telegraph, as did Hugh Grant, reprising anything disreputable they could find. Don't imagine that's over: the press has a long and vengeful memory. Finally, medals to the Financial Times, the Independent and the Guardian for holding out against ferocious peer pressure from the rest.

This battle has brought us the spectacle of some enjoyably preposterous posturing. It was fun to hear Trevor Kavanagh, the Sun's silken voice of Murdoch, procrastinating on the Today programme, as if awaiting instructions. How absurd to see the same press that daily denounces the Human Rights Act and calls for the locking up of any Muslim with a faintly seditious thought turn so pious about its own sacred rights. I loved the heroics of Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, saying he'd never pay any fine from an "underpinned regulator": "Whether I'd go to prison or not is up to the enemies of press freedom to decide. At least it would make clear what they are proposing."

Editors tend, in their bath, to daydream of following John Wilkes to prison for the glory of the cause, but judges rarely oblige, preferring to distrain their owners' cash. Oh, the lofty rhetoric of the Sun, quoting from those they would have hounded at the time – JF Kennedy, Ralph Miliband, Adlai Stevenson, John Stuart Mill and Gandhi. They even had today's bare-breasted page 3 girl, Poppy from Somerset, quoting Thomas Jefferson: "Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." But it has been sad to see some of the wiser commentators on the Times and Telegraph follow their masters' voice, warning that the end is nigh when they must know quite well that's nonsense.

Don't imagine you will wake up tomorrow to some new press landscape. Worst excesses of grubbing for dirt may be slightly checked – though cut-throat competition for dwindling sales will still, warns Roy Greenslade, mean doing whatever it takes to get highly intrusive material: wait for the next frenzy over a McCann-type case to see if this works. We will still suffer the most savage and unbalanced of European newspaper cultures beyond Berlusconi's Italy. Shrinking in sales but not influence, 80% of newspaper readership is owned by far-right proprietors – mostly non-UK taxpayers, something that's not allowed in the US. They set a raucous rightwing news and opinion agenda that distorts the balance of public debate and warps the broadcasters' search for the centre ground.

The Tory press may be angry with Cameron now, but watch them swivel guns on Miliband as the election approaches. Knowing he has little to lose has made him bold. In a Guardian article he raised the reform of "media plurality and ownership, which we will want to discuss in future". He told the Times that Murdoch's empire "has too much power in Britain. Other countries like the US wouldn't allow the level of cross-media ownership we have." Warning against "concentrations of power", he regretted that Labour did nothing when it had the chance: "We were too close and too fearful".

Tony Blair told Leveson why he never stood up to Murdoch. "Frankly, I decided as a political leader to manage that and not confront it." Miliband is daring to declare that era over. When it came to the crunch, Cameron ran for the cover of an all-party deal. Miliband is the one who emerges with the nerve to stand out alone. But in the end, an all-party deal will probably let them all sleep a little easier in their beds tonight.

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