A Rubicon too far

Natalie Fenton on why Cameron is scared of implementing Leveson's recommendations.

December 1, 2012
5 min read


Natalie Fenton is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths College, London

The Leveson report is a sturdy and serious tome of enormous merit. The result of over a year of gathering evidence; analysing the situation and critiquing possible ways forward. The conclusion – a system of independent self-regulation backed by law. A solution that offers a means by which the industry can continue to inform and advise the criteria on which they are judged (through a Code Committee) without doing the actual judging themselves (this would be the job of the independent regulatory body). A solution that commits to enshrine for the first time ever in British history a legal duty on the government to protect the freedom of the press. A solution that would guarantee genuine independence from any form of government interference and ensure the press don’t simply get, as Leveson said, “to mark their own homework”.

So what is the Prime Minister frightened of?

We have heard much in recent weeks of the phrase ‘crossing the Rubicon’. The Rubicon is a small river in North-Eastern Italy. This idiom refers to the army of Julius Caesar crossing of the river in 49BC as an act of insurrection that ended in civil war. It means you are passing a point of no return. The Rubicon is also the place where Caesar is said to have uttered the famous phrase “alea iacta est”- the die is cast. In other words, the sacrosanct position of a free press in a free society is irreparably undermined, there is no going back. Consequently, we are told, it is simply something that should never happen in a democratic society.

It is a weak and lazy argument that misconstrues the notion of freedom and distorts the role of the press in a democracy.

Nobody would dispute the freedom of the press to hold power to account. But this does not put the press themselves beyond accountability. Freedom without accountability is simply the freedom of the powerful over the powerless. Freedom to run roughshod over people’s lives causing harm and distress for the sake of increased newspaper sales, often without any pretence that such infractions of the journalist code of conduct were necessary because it was in the public interest.

Furthermore, freedom has always been enshrined in Law. The press is protected by the right of freedom of expression, under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. But Article 10 is not absolute, it is conditional and qualified by article 10.ii:

“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions of penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

Article 10 is also subject to Article 8 of the Convention which covers the right to privacy. So actually the Rubicon has already been crossed but it appears that nobody has actually noticed. So much so, that abuses of press power have continued and as Leveson says “the price of press freedom [is] paid by those who suffer, unfairly and egregiously, at the hands of the press and have no sufficient mechanism for obtaining redress” (Leveson, 2012, para 10, p.5).

We shouldn’t be crossing the Rubicon, now one of the most polluted rivers in the region, by foot, trudging through murky waters, feet muddied. We should be building a bridge that will carry us there and back again – enabling the free flow of communication that offers a balance of power. Freedom of the press balanced by freedom of the public to assess and challenge the nature of that communication – freedom shared not power abused. Democratic practice requires protective and enabling legislative form – that’s why we have it in all other areas of public life.

The Press have been given many opportunities to sort out their own back yard. They have consistently failed. It is the Press who have passed the point of no return and lost their way.

The Prime Minister promised to implement the recommendations of the inquiry he initiated with such political expedience as long as they weren’t “bonkers”. The report has been widely acknowledged as rational and proportionate. Cameron himself has said he accepts the principles of the report but goes on to reject the recommended solution. At a cost of £5m to the public purse it would appear that an inquiry has taken place the outcome of which the Prime Minister had no intention of ever implementing if it didn’t meet with his own ideological beliefs. A view he has clung to despite the wishes of a vast majority of the general public, a large number of MPs, and of course, the victims of press abuse. The die is most certainly cast – the Prime Minister is beholden to the Press.

Leveson is right – it is essential that there is legislation to underpin an independent self-regulatory system. What is there to be frightened of: actually having a regulatory body that is independent and can do its job? Ensuring that such a body is effective? Validating the code of standards agreed by the industry? Establishing an arbitration system that works?

Or not having the support of the Press in the next general election?

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Natalie Fenton is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths College, London


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