As I type, Tony Blair is giving evidence to the Leveson Enquiry. Why do I care? Because it is receiving wall-to-wall coverage on Britain’s rolling news channels, and as dull as the whole wretched thing is, I cannot bring myself to change channel to The Weakest Link or whatever other daytime television is on offer.
What is the Leveson Enquiry? For those unfamiliar, the enquiry has its own website. And logo. Funny how these things have become a kind of industry of their own in Britain.
I only tuned in toward the end of the session in which Tony Blair was giving evidence, but having subsequently seen the “highlights” repeated on BBC News, I am slightly concerned that we might just be paying a lot of people to sit around for no productive reason whatsoever.
Television at its best here.
And after all of this drama and posturing, what did we actually learn today from Tony Blair’s evidence? Essentially, that the media is very powerful and that Tony Blair recognised this when he was Prime Minister, and devised clever strategies to try to keep as much of the media as possible on his side. Oh, and that he didn’t think it was really very proper for the press to say nasty things about his wife and children. Fascinating.
We are paying for all of these people to sit in a room, surrounded by their lever-arch files and court stenographers, so that a glossy report can be published and life can continue exactly as it did before.
Here is all anyone needs to know about regulation of the press and freedom of speech in Britain. Quite literally, this is all anyone needs to know:
1. There is a small elite of powerful people in Britain whose families know each other, who attended the same schools, the same parties, and the same social events. Whether they end up in politics (in either of the main parties), industry (running big companies that do business in Britain) or the media (newspaper or television), their personal preferences, feuds and biases are reflected in the attitudes of their respective political parties / companies / newspapers to one another. Anyone surprised by this non-revelation is a simpleton.
2. We will never know whether any secret deals have been done between any prior governments and media entities in the past, because there are no robust rules about lobbying, declaring interests or exercising influence in place at the moment, and no one involved in such a scheme is very likely to blurt out the fact during an on-the-record, televised enquiry. If you are wondering whether this fact renders the whole enquiry a complete waste of time, you would not be alone.
3. Our libel laws are ridiculous and need urgent reform. Nothing to do with the Leveson enquiry, just a fact.
4. The division between news reporting and opinion is not as clear as it should be in British newspapers.
5. British media companies, like companies in general, sometimes hire bad people who do bad things while on the job. Sometimes this becomes endemic in the organisation concerned. We don’t need to create special new laws to prevent such things happening in the future. If phone hacking was illegal before, prosecute the people involved under the existing laws. Just as we don’t need to design new regulations when the misdemeanour happens in a construction company or a bank, so we don’t need to design new laws when it happens in the media. Tempting though it may be when everyone is a lawyer and wants to be paid for doing something.
6. Until we as a country codify at a very high, hard-to-amend level (i.e. in a constitution or bill of rights of some kind) exactly what, if any, restrictions we are willing to accept on free speech – both as individuals and as media – any time that anything happens to rock the boat, any time that anyone in the media does something improper, we will have another enquiry like this and pay a bunch of former and current lawyers and judges to sit around doing what they are doing at the moment.
7. That’s it.
Isn’t our unwritten constitution a wondrous, beautiful thing? Oh, how we must treasure and preserve it for all time.
UPDATE – Oh, here’s the best bit. Because Tony Blair was interrupted by a protester while giving evidence to the enquiry, Lord Justice Leveson has now ordered an enquiry into how his enquiry was interrupted by a protester. I’m not joking. Welcome to Britain.