Center for Strategic Communication

By John Charles Dyer, UK Correspondent

30 November 2012.  Yesterday Judge Leveson delivered his long awaited report into Media ethics.  

It was hardly the storming of the Bastille.

The Judge seemed to some to lean over backwards to shield the police, Ministers and the Prime Minister from criticism over their conduct.  

But Prime Minister David Cameron and the majority of his Conservative Party MP’s rejected even Judge Leveson’s muted and temperate central recommendation even despite the fact this was the 8th time in 70 years press behaviour had necessitated such an inquiry.   

Lord Justice Leveson recommended a statute which would 1) enshrine the principle of free speech, and 2) require the Press to establish an Independent Press Commission to watchdog Press behaviour. The Commission would be independent of government and politicians, and be composed of distinguished people drawn from outside the active Press.   

Both in the report's thrust and in his carefully chosen words at yesterday’s press conference, Judge Leveson focused on bad behaviour — not the content of speech. He additionally stressed the point that no one — no one — spoke for him as to what he “really” meant, thereby underlining the care, temperance and caution he brought to the report.  He was, it seems to me, remarkably temperate, considered and narrowly focused on a narrow reform.  As Alastair Campbell remarked, one could characterize the Judge as pulling his punches. But one can not — by the wildest stretches of imagination — call his proposal partisan, personal, recriminatory, repressivly aimed at the content of speech or free speech in the public interest.  

But it was all too much for the Prime Minister.

Or was that the heat in the political kitchen? Was it principle or lost nerve?  Or maybe political advantage? Did the Prime Minister calculate his best hope to salvage a respectable (if losing) finish for his party at the next general election was for him to be the one who sucked up to the Press Barons?  Certainly, election strategy looms larger by the day.   

Whatever motivated the Prime Minister, his decision triggered a political firestorm. 

The faces of the firestorm are the unhappy ones of the Dowler family and celebrities Hugh Grant, Stephen Fry, and Charlotte Church. But the outraged and disappointed victims of press misconduct are not alone. This firestorm may yet escalate into the equally long awaited “last straw” between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.   

Liberal Democratic Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg took a step without precedent in response. Clegg spoke separately from the Prime Minister and against the Prime Minister’s position.

Conservatives met Clegg’s decision with outrage, some calling for his resignation. 

Maybe, as some perhaps jaded commentators opined, they will patch this up, too. After all, it is their sacred jobs and power at stake.  On the other hand, it just maybe this is the affair that breaks up the always bad marriage between the two parties. 

What are the relative prospects for the two parties?  

Three Parliamentary by-elections took place the same day as Judge Leveson announced his report.  They were utter disasters for both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Both finished behind euro-skeptic rival UKIP, itself perhaps a significant change in political winds. But worse, Conservatives finished behind UKIP, the British National Party and the Respect Party in one district. The Liberal Democrats lost deposits in 2 districts so poor was their showing. In one Liberal Democrats finished 8th, behind the, ahem, erm, how shall I describe them (?) … oh, the “other” parties.   

But these three by-elections cannot be considered bell weathers.  They were all Labour strong holds. It is interesting how badly the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats did. It is interesting how well UKIP did. But the results are probably not solid indicators of a blood bath to come, although some will dream. 

On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s response to the Leveson report came only in the late afternoon. One must wonder just how bad the results would have been had the Prime Minister’s reaction been known the day prior.  At least one poll conducted in the pre-release build up to the report suggested that as much as 80% of the country wanted some form of statutory regulation of the Press.

It ain't over yet.

In the weeks ahead the Coalition government will draw up a bill that allegedly does what Leveson recommends. But Ministers "are confident" it will illustrate why the idea won't work.  So, that would be a bill sabotaged in the writing by its opponents, then? A lot of credibility that will carry.  

I will not rehash here the arguments concerning whether or not these proposals would actually impinge on freedom of speech or the press in any way inconsistent with democratic tradition.  Whatever those arguments, whatever the future regulatory and political consequences of this moment, one thing appears crystal clear in this writer's honest opinion. When the chips are down, the Conservative Party stands for neither stabilizing conservative principle nor acceptance of the democratic will if principle or democratic will threaten the special privileges of the entrenched special interests.