Next month Lord Justice Leveson will unveil his report on press ethics and governance, and in that context the lawsuits now being taken out against Mirror Group Newspapers could hardly have come at a worse time for those wanting to head off reform. If other potential victims flood in with their own legal actions as happened at News International, the results could be catastrophic. Murdoch’s News Corp has already had to pay out £224m in litigation and settlement fees, is having to break up its media empire, has closed down the News of the World, and faces the humiliation that several of its senior executives now face criminal charges. If the Mirror Group suffers a similar fate, where will the buck stop? Were other newspapers also guilty of phone-hacking, long pursued with impunity because they thought they could get away with it and anyway everyone else was doing it?
Leveson, on the evidence arrayed before him, is thought to believe that self-regulation cannot be relied upon to prevent future malpractice, and that some form of statutory underpinning to press regulation is now necessary. That could mean a new regulatory body being formally recognised in law, and could include a legal requirement for newspapers to sign up to this body – to get round the Richard Desmond problem that an antagonistic proprietor (as he is of the Express) can at present simply walk away from the Press Complaints Commission (even though it is dominated by editors) and refuse to recognise its authority.
Of course the riposte of the defenders of the status quo (the disgraced Lord Blacks of the world, now he has been released from prison for embezzlement) is that this is the thin end of the wedge of State interference. It most certainly is not, as is shown by the (though somewhat different) Irish model and by other procedures elsewhere in Europe balancing freedom of speech with systems that effectively check the worst excesses of the press that are manifest in the UK. No doubt the Murdochs, Dacres, Barclay Brothers and Desmonds will bitterly denounce what they caricature as ‘State control’, but who gave them the right to exercise untrammelled tycoon control over what should be a freedom of speech open to all, but normally denied in their newspapers to all who don’t agree with them?