As a tool for getting powerful men out of immediate trouble, the public inquiry has a long history in Britain. The Magna Carta of 1215, no less, included a clause establishing an investigation into the misconduct of “foresters and sheriffs,” whose abuses were giving King John a thirteenth-century headache. So it was for the British prime minister David Cameron eight hundred years later. In 2011 it was the mass-market press, rather than rural sheriffs, who were guilty of abuse, a fact that became undeniable when The Guardian revealed that The News of the World, the Sunday tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, had hacked the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl murdered in 2002.
On Thursday, after some sixteen months digesting a vast outpouring of written and oral evidence, and taking testimony from former prime ministers, national newspaper editors, and an array of film actors and celebrities, Sir Brian Leveson, the judge appointed by Cameron to investigate “the culture, practices and ethics of the press,” delivered his two-thousand-page verdict. For all the report’s copious detail, the subsequent debate has boiled down to a single question. Should the British press now be regulated by an independent body, whose status would be enshrined in law and which would be ultimately overseen by a government appointee? Yes, said Leveson. No, said most of the print press, campaigners for free expression, and, with qualifications, Cameron himself, who feared such a law would “cross the Rubicon,” reversing three centuries of unfettered British press freedom.
Not that the prime minister disliked all that he read in the report. On the contrary, there were multiple causes for relief. Given what he had heard in his courtroom, Leveson could plausibly have delivered damning judgments about the police, politicians—including Cameron and his ministers—and, especially, News Corporation and the Murdoch family who run it. Yet much of the report’s immense length is taken up by filling in the background, setting out the facts rather than apportioning blame. One fifty-seven page chapter, for example, details “the history, governance structures and finances of the major British newspapers,” examining each one in turn. In contrast, the report is strikingly mild on all such matters of culpability. The Metropolitan Police, who had failed to investigate phone-hacking or follow up on The Guardian‘s initial revelations in 2009, and who were exposed as dining expensively and regularly, often over champagne, with Murdoch executives, were found guilty only of “poor decisions, poorly executed” with no questions raised about their “integrity.” The judge ruled against the left-leaning conspiracy-theorists, concluding that Cameron and his Conservative party had made no “explicit” deal with News Corporation, that there had been no exchange of promises on media policy in return for newspaper support.
As for Rupert Murdoch, there was a cold rebuke that his failure to read an earlier legal judgment against The News of the World “says something about the degree to which his organisation engages with the ethical direction of its newspapers”—but it was hardly the acid condemnation hoped for by those who have long blamed Murdoch for poisoning British public life. Nor did Leveson say much about the concentration of media ownership in relatively few hands, even though Murdoch’s huge influence in Britain rests in part on the fact that his newspapers account for 37 percent of the market. (On the topic of the Internet, there was but a single page.)
This series of omissions or tepid verdicts may express no more than Sir Brian’s considered legal judgment. But it’s also possible that he made a tactical decision. Leveson let it be known several times that he was not interested in writing a pure, intellectually coherent report that would be promptly ignored by policymakers, destined to moulder on the shelves of journalism school libraries. When he published his report, he pointedly referred to the fact that his was the seventh such inquiry into the British press in as many decades. It follows that the judge may well have been thinking politically, asking himself not only what was right but what would fly. Accordingly, he may have chosen to pick his battles—avoiding fights with the police, News Corporation, and the prime minister, aiming instead to make his report palatable to those who would decide its fate.
Such pragmatism, if that’s what it was, may well prove to have been in vain. The speed of Cameron’s declaration against a law underpinning independent oversight is in itself discouraging for Leveson, but it also removes from the press what might otherwise have been a spur to get its house in order. Now that they know they face no threat of legislation, the newspaper proprietors have less incentive to set up the new, beefed-up regulator demanded by Leveson. The reason why the many victims of phonehacking—including, through their lawyer, Milly Dowler’s parents—are accusing the Prime Minister of betrayal is this fear that, for all the sound and fury of the last sixteen months, for all the revelations of shameful press behavior, the newspapers might wait for the fuss to quieten and return to their old ways.
Cameron’s motives are probably a combination of principle and political calculation. He will be attracted to the liberal ideal of a free press, but he is also aware that two of his biggest rivals, his Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, both journalists by trade, have been loud advocates for press freedom. The PM, facing myriad other political difficulties, surely worries that if he backed Leveson, the Tory-leaning press would instantly turn against him, with two new favorites already in place.
But there is more to this argument than low political cunning and press self-preservation. Two instincts compete in the British breast. Strong is the notion of the “freeborn Englishman” who cherishes his liberties and regards Britain as an ancient model of free speech for other nations to follow. But the revulsion at press tactics—bugging, hacking, rummaging through trash, targeting even vulnerable people such as the Dowlers who never sought fame but who suffered terrible misfortune—is also real. And many Britons have a strong, social democratic instinct, too, which, when confronted with a public ill, expects the government to step in and act. The Leveson report has pitted these two competing inclinations against each other.
The judge has some powerful allies, including the Labour party and Cameron’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Some leading journalists, including Sir Harold Evans, back him, too. But, so long as he holds firm, Cameron can count on the support of the ally that means most to a Conservative politician seeking re-election, the ally whose immense power lies at the heart of the matter: the British press. If not much changes, then that would be an outcome fully in keeping with British tradition, one even King John would have understood. The public inquiry would have done its job, buying time for the man who set it up and keeping things much as they were.