Hacking victims and Hacked Off campaign members following Leveson Report announcement. Credit: Gareth Fuller
The John Whittingdale story is not about privacy. It is about the vulnerability of a government minister who knows the press have an “embarrassing” story on him that they chose not to run right at the time that a new framework of press regulation is supposed to be implemented. It just so happens that during this period John Whittingdale decided to suspend implementation of a crucial element of the new system of press regulation under the provisions of the Royal Charter enacted by parliament and to change his mind about pressing ahead with part 2 of the Leveson inquiry. It is worth taking each of these in turn.
On 19 October 2015, in a speech to the Society of Editors, the main annual gathering of all newspaper editors and executives, the Secretary of State said that he was not convinced that the time was right to commence Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. Section 40 is an integral part of the Royal Charter process. It will bring substantial benefits to ordinary citizens by providing access to justice at low cost – because news publishers inside a regulator recognized by the Royal Charter, will have to provide an arbitration system that will greatly reduce the need for prohibitively expensive court proceedings, previously the preserve of the very wealthy. It will also offer protection to journalists and investigative journalism – because if a news publisher does end up in court and is a member of a recognized regulator it will not have to pay costs, even if it loses. Conversely, if it is not a member of a recognized regulator and ends up in court it will have to pay costs even if it wins. It is the key incentive for news publishers to join a Leveson compliant independent regulator.
The incentives in Section 40 were part of a rare cross-party agreement negotiated over several months and approved overwhelmingly in the House of Commons. Whittingdale himself voted for Section 40 in 2013. Successive opinion polls also demonstrated consistent support for the implementation of the recommendations in the Leveson report. And yet, Whittingdale now says that he questions whether Section 40 will lead to the changes he wants to see and so will not turn the key that unlocks the entire process.
Leveson Part 2 is supposed to deal with the cover-up of the hacking scandal and investigate police and press corruption. Whittingdale is on record twice previously pressing for Leveson 2 to take place: Speaking in November 2012 at the launch of the Free Speech Network, he said:
"My real regret – one of the key things I wanted Lord Justice Leveson to look into – was how it was that the News of the World newsroom appeared to allow this to go on […] but also how the police sat around for years and did nothing. Those are two things that Lord Justice Leveson may never examine. Part 2 of the enquiry, I hear may not ever be occurring. Therefore, it seems very strange that actually the most important questions surrounding the hacking scandal may never be properly looked into."
Then again in a parliamentary exchange with the Home Secretary in February 2013:
"Does my right honorable friend agree that one of the great unanswered questions in the sorry saga of phone hacking is how although the police evidence taken from Glenn Mulcaire in 2006 that suggested widespread lawbreaking was taking place, not only was nothing done about it, but it was denied that such evidence existed? That matter was intended to be investigated by Lord Justice Leveson in part 2 of his enquiry. Will the Home Secretary confirm that an investigation will still take place to answer those questions?"
Yet, in December last year it was reported that Mr Whittingdale is planning to shelve Leveson 2. The papers were delighted.
The Culture Secretary’s private life should indeed remain private. But what is at stake here is the appearance that press power might well have intruded on the press regulation process and that is a legitimate public interest story. It is not a story about privacy, it is about a government minister being compromised in his job.
There is one clear way for the Culture Secretary to dispel all concerns about inappropriate distortion of the democratic process by the press: commence Section 40 and confirm that Leveson 2 will happen.