Lords should leave Leveson out of it

Sequels of Hollywood movies are often more expensive and worse than the original, and it’s the same in politics. With the news that the House of Lords has decided to push the government to open a second press inquiry, that doesn’t seem likely to change.

It is, however, good news that the new culture secretary has come out fighting against the move by the House of Lords a week ago, with Matt Hancock saying:

"The House of Lords have just voted to restrict press freedoms. This vote will undermine high quality journalism, fail to resolve challenges the media face and is a hammer blow to local press. We support a free press and will seek to overturn these amendments in the Commons."

We are rightly keen to chastise and lampoon the enemies of a free press away from home (whether its mocking Trump’s attacks of #FakeNews and his calls to open up the libel laws, Chinese censorship or Turkey’s Erdogan shutting down private papers and TV channels). But the threat that comes from the House of Lords should be just as worrying.

The original Leveson cost the public £5.4m and cost the industry £43.7million. It was widely regarded as being broad in scope and unearthed wrongdoing that led to the arrest of 10 journalists. It led to sea-changes in operations at paper media organisations and was widely regarded as comprehensive (and in many ways counterproductive). Another inquiry was said to be designed to be focussed on relations between the press and the police but this was an area that the original inquiry already focussed on – something that Dr Marianne Colbran has argued led to a breakdown in relations between the two institutions.

Calls for evidence from across media would cost further millions of hours and thousands of hours spent. With the scope a second Leveson trailed as being any editorial coverage of any matter past, present or future, the inquiry would be open to abuse with complaints intended to deter and disrupt investigations.

The newspaper industry has changed its practices and its outlook. But it isn’t playing on a level playing field. The rules that govern online players, including the likes of facebook and twitter, as well as the myriad blogs and apps, do not apply uniformly. One of the recommendations, being pursued by Liberal Democrat and Labour Lords, was that press would have to bear the legal costs of both sides during investigations into their practices (by bringing into force Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013) following the Press Recognition Panel's decision to grant Impress the recognition of the Royal Charter. After local and national media highlighted the cost implications of the new regulations, the then Culture Secretary Karen Bradley backed away. She was right to do so, it could have meant investigations grinding to a halt under pernicious acts of those anxious to avoid scrutiny. The Conservatives were right to subsequently to recognise the too high a cost of a second inquiry when they stood on a manifesto of dropping it and the Section 40 provision at the election earlier this year. 

British people get a great deal from a free and open press. No-one is safe just because of their status or position. Whether it's the Profumo affair, the Sunday Times investigation into Fifa's world cup allocations systems, the Telegraph's MPs expenses, or the Winterbourne care home abuse, our press keeps us all in the loop and everyone accountable. The Lords should back away from another damaging inquiry. Our press must remain free to publish without fear nor favour.