Some of you may have noticed that none of us at Shiraz has had anything to say about the Leveson report.
Speaking for myself, that’s because I’m totally confused by the issues at stake, and have a lot of sympathy of all sides of the argument. Thus my silence.
But (I’m relieved to note) I’m not the only one to be confused:
Shami Chakrabarti supports Cameron on Leveson but is too scared to admit it
By Dan Hodges Last updated: December 4th, 2012
Above: Shami has, uncharacteristically, bottled it
Just what is Liberty’s stance on the Leveson report? On Sunday morning the organisation’s director Shami Chakrabarti appeared to take a clear, and principled, stance on the Leveson proposals. “A compulsory statute to regulate media ethics in the way the report suggests would violate the Act, and I cannot support it. It would mean the Press was being coerced in being held to higher standards than anyone else, and this would be unlawful,” she told the Mail on Sunday.
By lunchtime her position seemed to be shifting. Her views had been misrepresented, she told Andrew Marr. She had not delivered a “bombshell” to the report (though in fact she had herself used that very phrase in an earlier BBC interview). Instead she had merely said she could not support statutory compulsion were members of the press to refuse to sign up to a new independent regulatory body. It was only at that point, she claimed, that she would “get off the bus”.
But then – just to further confuse matters – a few hours later she issued a third statement, which indicated she had in fact got off the bus a few stops earlier. Not only did she oppose statutory compulsion in the event of non-compliance by the press, but she also rejected the suggestion that any legislation was required to establish an independent regulator he first place. “No statute is needed to create such a body and editors and proprietors should take the Leveson characteristics and seek to build one without delay” she said on the Liberty website.
All fairly clear then. No need for legislation, and a libertarian feather in the cap of David Cameron.
Then yesterday morning, on the Today programme, up popped Shami again. And this time not only was she back on the bus, but she was driving the thing. Now she fully supported legislation to establish the “Recogniser”, the rather shadowy figure whose role it would be to pass judgment every three years on whether the press were behaving themselves. What’s more, she fully supported legislation to “incentivise” the press to join this new statutory body. Neat word, incentivise: “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you have to join, Mr Editor. But put it this way, it would be much easier on both of us if you did.”
This morning I phoned Liberty to try and clarify precisely what the foremost national campaigners for free speech rally thinks of establishing regulation of the press via statute. And it was instructive.
According to Liberty’s Policy Director, the indefatigably polite and patient Isabella Sankey, Liberty is not in favor of establishing a statutory press regulatory body. But they would potentially be in favour of legislation that laid out “in the abstract” criteria to govern the principles any new independent regulator, or regulators, should meet.
These should not, according to Liberty, be too prescriptive. But they could extend to stipulating that the new body or bodies should have the power to fine, have powers to enforce corrections and apologies and contain an arbitration arm.
Liberty says that no member of the press should be forced or coerced via statute into joining any new regulatory body. But they could – that word again – be incentivised. Two specific “incentives” Liberty supports are the enforcement of costs upon non-members of the regulatory body, even in legal cases where they have successfully defended their journalism. And a change in the law to allow exemplary damages to be awarded for breaches of privacy, with a higher penalty being levied on non-members found to be in breach of the law.
When I put it to Isabella Sankey that what Liberty regards as statutory incentives to membership others could define as statutory sanctions for non-membership, she rejected that characterisation.
But interestingly, when I asked whether Liberty felt legislation would be required even in circumstances where the newspaper editors agreed to voluntarily implementation of the Leveson principles, she replied: “No. Statutory underpinning doesn’t have to happen. We would have concerns that without it once the current political consensus for action dissipates there is a danger we could drift back to the status quo. But we would be prepared to give the press time to bring in a new system and see how it operates.”
If this appears Liberty are dancing on the head of a legislative pin, it’s because they are. And there are three very clear reasons for this.
The first is that Shami Chakrabarti made a monumental blunder in agreeing to be an official part of the Leveson inquiry in the first-place. It has clearly compromised her ability to pass judgment on the proposals, as her contortions over the last 72 hours have shown.
Secondly, Chakrabarti has made the schoolgirl error of basing her stance on the belief her enemy’s enemies are her friends. Faced with the perception of aligning herself with the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre, she has instead tried to line up behind those trying to break a 300-year-old principle of press independence from statute. There will be some arguing eloquently for that breach of liberal precedent. But the director of Liberty has no place being amongst them.
And the third reason is that – uncharacteristically – Shami Chakrabarti has bottled it. By her own admission, she rejects Lord Leveson’s suggestion of forcing the press to join a new statutory body. She also rejects his idea of Ofcom adopting an ultimate oversight role. And as Liberty has confirmed today, she does not actually believe that primary legislation is necessary if the press agree to voluntary implementation of the Leveson principles.
So on what everyone aggrees are the real fundamentals of the Leveson report, Shami Chakrabarti disagrees with Leveson, the victims, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and the rest of the pro-Leveson chorus, and actually supports the stance of David Cameron and the newspaper editors. She doesn’t want anyone to know it. Scared of being seen to be out of step with what she currently perceives to be popular opinion, she is trying to dodge and weave and nuance her way into having her cake and legislating for it.
Which is fine. Some people will say it’s clever politics. Others that she has no choice but to try to reflect widely divergent shades of liberal opinion on what is a complex issue.
But on an issue like this, if you’re director of Liberty, you need to be leading with courage and clarity and principle. Shami Chakrabarti – unusually – has become a follower, not a leader.