Following up on my post yesterday morning about yet another institution in crisis, I’m now wondering what happens next?
To go back a little bit, I think this has the potential to be a total, utter catastrophe for so many parts of our national life – our media, our politics, our policing, our trust in each other and our understanding of the world we live in. If we can’t trust our free press, who do we trust?
David Cameron should have made a statement on Monday afternoon. It is, strictly speaking, Jeremy Hunt’s department which is responsible for press regulation, but this goes far beyond a failure of regulation. It goes far beyond even just criminality (there is an argument that Theresa May could have made the statement). It goes right to the heart of our society, and – while I think the White Paper on open public services is massively important – David Cameron needs to be front and centre on this, even though to do so is incredibly risky. There should have been two statements – one from Jeremy Hunt on the takeover and what action he is taking, and a second from David Cameron on the wider issue of trust in the media. Even though there isn’t actually much to say at the moment, he has a good record of stepping out in moments of crisis – which, as I argued yesterday, I think this is.
Remember the MPs’ expenses scandal? Whether or not you agree with what he said and did, David Cameron was absolutely miles ahead of most other politicians in recognising the toxicity and the need to take some giant steps and look like he got it and was in control. Similarly, on 6th May, he made that “big open and comprehensive” offer to the Lib Dems, surprising them, many Tories, and most commentators by skipping ahead of protracted negotiations and tortured concessions, and really going for the biggest, bravest option.
So why not now? Why isn’t he doing what he normally does so well? (Just to be clear, I have to say here that I haven’t spoken to anyone who knows anything much about this, and certainly to no-one in the government).
I think there are two problems – the first is that no-one has all the information. And he who controls the information controls the story. So given that no-one is controlling the information, no-one is controlling the story. And presumably, as time goes by, we are going to continue to discover more and greater problems.
The second problem is that there isn’t really an answer. Over MPs’ expenses, it was pretty easy (if difficult for many of the MPs involved) – condemn the rule-breakers, overdose on cleaning up what you can, get rid of some, massively tighten up the rules and repent, repent, repent. On the uncertain outcome of the election – if he wanted to be Prime Minister, he needed numbers. The Lib Dems’ biggest problem is that not enough people considered them as a potential government – so get them in government and let them make the best of it they could.
I think as well, to be fair, that there is plenty of actual governing to be done at the moment. We’re still active in Libya and Afghanistan, we still have no money, we still have a bumpy economy, and the government is moving (really a bit too slowly for my liking) in the direction of wide-reaching and radical reforms to our public services.
I’ve often expressed my concern that there isn’t enough political bottom in the structure of the government, and things that seem pretty unproblematic are not fully thought-through until they become major problems (tuition fees, the NHS bill, forests, school milk… the list goes on). But this is about more than just a tendency to assume that everyone has read everything that they’re supposed to and done all the preparation.
I really don’t care whether more people think David Cameron is handling this well than think Ed Miliband is – it really doesn’t matter (especially when most voters don’t trust anyone). And more to the point – the thing that will keep that number up is whether he gets thing right again and again and again. We have a serious problem in one of the pillars of our democratic society, which affects all politicians and journalists to a greater or lesser degree, and I think that the scale of the problem should at least be acknowledged, and that our government should be thinking really deeply about how to get ahead of it.
The announcement yesterday afternoon that the government will back the Labour motion on the takeover is hugely significant – perhaps that decision should have been made earlier and that could have been the start of being ahead of the problem. But there’s much more to it than just this decision – there need to be wide-reaching and stringent investigations, people going on oath, fearless and painstaking investigation.
And perhaps the most important thing – uncomfortable though I am with it – is that we should revisit the decision made by Gordon Brown in 2008, that journalists wouldn’t be jailed for illegally obtaining personal information. I know that the prospect of jailing journalists is a difficult one, when we have a free press and protection for those who act in the public interest. But I can’t see why anyone who breaks the law, knowingly and deliberately and without a public interest defence, should be treated any differently to anyone else.
I was shocked when I read (thanks to the Guardian) that the decision against holding journalists to the same standards as others had been made. I think lots of people will be. And I think that reversing that decision might be a good second step to take in gaining the initiative on this.