Most people like talking about themselves, including those in the press. Since publication of Lord Justice Leveson's report into press culture, practices and ethics at the end of last month, Britain's newspapers have been consumed with discussing their own future. From among the many recommendations contained in Leveson's almost 2,000-page report, attention has focused on the judge's call for "statutory underpinning" of any new self-regulatory regime replacing the existing Press Complaints Commission.
There is much confusion around what is meant by statutory underpinning. The term suggests something created by legislation, but independent of Parliament. For instance, a statute could be introduced creating a body to ensure that a new self-regulator meets standards of conduct set down by law. In other words, Parliament would legislate to create a regulator to regulate the self-regulator. In theory, this Kafkaesque proposal would preserve the independence of the press, by keep government one degree removed from the regulatory process. But many in the press have expressed fear that statutory underpinning could be a slippery slope leading to statutory state control.
It is unsurprising that those whose practices are called into question in the Leveson report oppose its recommendations for stronger regulation backed by legislation. But press misgivings are shared by Prime Minister David Cameron, who has declared "serious concerns" over Leveson's call for regulation backed by statute. Cameron has suggested that it would set a dangerous precedent to "write elements of press regulation into the law of the land", warning that legislation would create "a vehicle for politicians to impose further obligations and restrictions" on the press in the future. Although the prime minister's concerns about regulatory creep are doubtless sincere, his stated reasons for opposing Leveson's plans for a new statutory regime may obscure more Machiavellian motives.