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Commentary: why PM will have Leveson hangover in New Year

David Cameron has unfinished business left from Leveson inquiry over Press relations

By Nicholas Jones | 21 December 2012

Pre-Christmas talk in Westminster was all about newspaper editors trying to stitch up a deal with the government on Press regulation. But there is other, unfinished business from Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into newspaper ethics.

And that unfinished business will require the attention of David Cameron, prime minister, in the New Year.

Although woefully inadequate, the judge did make a series of recommendations designed to strengthen the ministerial code and to ensure greater transparency about meetings between politicians and media owners, editors and their senior executives.

“Proprietors and politicians have always been careful to avoid scrutiny of their two-way trade”

But an overarching failure in Leveson’s examination of relations between Press proprietors and the government of the day was his apparent disregard of the covert daily currency of political collusion and media manipulation.

From the outset, he decided that “a number of issues…’spin’, so-called anonymous briefings and the practice of ‘feeding’ favoured journalists with stories in return for an expectation of a certain type of treatment” were not “central to the work of the inquiry”.

But these were the very same techniques that the proprietors, editors and Conservative politicians used with such devastating effect to spin the line that the judge intended to turn Britain back 300 years to what the Daily Mail predicted would be the “new dark age” of a licensed press.

Leveson was outmanoeuvred and outgunned by a pre-emptive strike by the owners’ campaigning organisation, the Free Speech Network. His plaintive complaint that newspapers had directed their “considerable megaphones” against him before the inquiry presented its report only served to underline the folly of his decision to ignore issues of Press standards and ethics of political journalism as practised.

Proprietors and politicians have always been careful to avoid scrutiny of their two-way trade in favourable Press reporting in return for a sympathetic approach to media ownership and regulation. Therefore, the very occasional insight from the inquiry into this mostly hidden relationship is all the more revealing.

What did the judge think Cameron had in mind when he gave the inquiry his explanation for an extraordinary text message in 2009 from Rebekah Brooks, as chief executive of News International (NI)? She texted him: “Professionally, we’re definitely in this together!”

It meant, Cameron told the judge, that he as future prime minister and she as the boss of the newspaper group that publishes The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times, “were going to be pushing the same political agenda.”

Exaro has already pieced together how in May 2011 NI strong-armed the prime minister into ordering a review last year by the Metropolitan Police Service into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal.

But the judge failed to examine how Andy Coulson, then Downing Street’s director of communications, provided the impetus for delivering the shared political agenda of Cameron and Brooks by crafting it into headline-grabbing coverage for the Murdoch press.

In August 2010, within weeks of the coalition’s post-election emergency budget, The Sun published a two-page spread, supported with a signed article by the prime minister, to launch the paper’s hotline for readers to expose “feckless benefit scroungers”.

Another well-planned propaganda offensive was mounted two months later when Cameron had a double-page spread to relaunch his “big society” initiative.

There was no mention of the behind-the-scenes negotiations that must have preceded publications of these endorsements in the updated declaration of meetings published by Cameron in July 2011 in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

Cameron used the vague term, “general discussion” alongside entries for meetings with Brooks and other NI executives.

Leveson concluded that “only very limited steps” were needed to enhance the ministerial code.

He recommended that the quarterly declaration of ministers’ meetings should also cover political special-advisers, lobbyists and the official Opposition. There should be an indication of the “frequency or density” of contact by telephone, text and e-mail.

However, unless ministers can no longer hide behind terms such as “general discussion”, there is unlikely to be any greater transparency about the flow of information from the state to the public, a process about which – surprise, surprise – Leveson found nothing that gave “rise to any legitimate public concern”.

Nicholas Jones is a former BBC industrial and political correspondent and author of several books on manipulation of news by politicians.

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