Lord Leveson’s prescription for the British press is a cunning mixture of carrot and stick. The carrot consists of the incentives offered to newspapers who opt in to the ’voluntary’ new self-regulation scheme — basically liberation from the swingeing risks of old-style libel litigation. The stick is that newspapers that do not opt in have to subject themselves to a statutory regulator — OFCOM — which has no experience of the newspaper industry. The problem with this prescription is that it does not address the biggest problem with the British tabloids, which is that they are fiendishly attractive to the great British public.
This was the elephant in Lord Leveson’s court-room throughout his hearings, and yet nobody was tactless enough to draw attention to it. But it goes to the heart of the matter. The reason there are such appalling abuses of newspaper power in Britain is that the products of these abuses are so popular. Bad behaviour is rewarded by newspaper sales, and is therefore incentivised within the industry. If the British public really disapproved of what the News of the World et al were doing, then the remedy was obvious: people could have boycotted the paper. But they didn’t. The biggest-selling newspapers in Britain are all publications that are ethically challenged. What Lord Leveson ignored was the fact that Britain gets the newspapers it deserves. And that is something that neither self-regulation nor statute will change.