The biggest risk in punditry is the determination to see what you want to see. Confirmation bias is an ever-present clear and present danger to solid thinking. Nevertheless, though keeping this in mind, I wonder if Ed Miliband’s reaction to the Leveson Report has been wise, far less a response that will help him win the next election.
By “wise” I mean wise in a purely political sense, not “wise” as in appropriate, sensible or well-judged. The Labour leader’s demand that Leveson’s recommendations be implemented is, in its way, remarkable. This, after all, is a 2,000 page report published in four volumes. And yet within this mountain of ponderous, muddle-headed thumb-sucking Mr Miliband has not been able to – or has chose not to – identify a single passage with which he might quibble. This is an opportunity for David Cameron. Heresy Corner has a bracing post that goes some way towards explaining why this might be so:
Leveson’s predictability, though, goes beyond the familiar nature of much of the evidence, and the fact that the central conclusion – calling for a semi-independent regulatory body with statutory “underpinning” – was well trailed in advance. Leveson plods through the evidence, showing little insight and almost never offering an original observation. There’s no analysis beyond a general sense that the press’s critics are right and its defenders wrong. The turgidity of the prose seems to be an accurate reflection of the turgidity of the judge’s brain.
Perhaps he doesn’t understand journalism. (He can’t write, after all.) His regime, which requires meticulous record-keeping and would remove vital protection of investigative journalists from the rigours of the Data Protection Act, would make the most vital functions of a free press in exposing corruption and wrongdoing next to impossible. These proposals are astonishing, and show the dangers of the demand by Ed Miliband and the Hacked Off campaign, that Leveson’s recommendations be adopted “in full.” If Parliament’s job were simply to rubber-stamp the opinions of a single judge, we might as well abolish democracy entirely and hand legislative responsibility to the judiciary. They would, of course, make a pig’s ear of it, because however knowledgeable judges are about the law, they have the same occupational blind spot as members of other professions and callings, the assumption that what they happen to be expert in is the only thing that really matters.
Indeed. (And should you desire an example of how politicians would like to treat the media consult this Samizdata post. Broadcasters today; the printed press tomorrow. If they can get away with it.)
Anyway, this is an opportunity for the Prime Minister. Not because the next election will be decided by voters’ reactions to the non-urgent matter of press regulation (non-urgent, in one sense, that is because most of the objectionable practices are covered by existing criminal law). No, this is a question of leadership.
Conventional wisdom has it that with his anti-Murdoch, pro-Leveson agenda Ed Miliband has been leading the way, pinning the government on the back-foot. Perhaps so. But Miliband has not really been leading. He has simply chosen to follow opinions and campaigns crafted and led by other people. That’s his prerogative but it ain’t leadership. Going with the fashionable flow is not the same as leadership.
This, then, is Cameron’s opportunity. The task is not so much to demonstrate that Miliband is wrong (though he is) but that he lacks the leadership qualities necessary for office. Put it this way: can you imagine Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair contracting out entire major issues to quasi-independent members of the judiciary? There are times when inquiries are necessary but on issue after issue Miliband’s instinctive reaction is to call for an inquiry and then, once it has reported, ask that its recommendations be accepted lock, stock and barrel. Again, can you imagine Thatcher or Blair operating in this fashion? No, not really.
Adopting positions that comfort the stale prejudices and presumptions that animate your cosiest supporters isn’t leadership either. It’s the very opposite. It makes you feel good about yourself and wins you favourable headlines from the people who will never vote for the other guy anyway, but it doesn’t necessarily show you have the chops to be Prime Minister.
I suspect that polling on these matters is a false-friend to Labour. Sure, the public don’t much care for the press and sure they may say they support Leveson’s findings too. But, in truth, the public neither know much or care much about Leveson or the future of the press.
Miliband has been leader of the Labour party for more than two years but he has still not properly defined himself. The public still doesn’t really know what to make of him. It should go without saying that the Tories might by now have done a better job of framing Miliband in a negative light but, given the Labour leader’s failure to make a properly positive case for himself, the Conservatives are fortunate that there is still time to go to work on Ed.
Is there any issue upon which Miliband has really made his mark? Not really. It should not be impossible to argue that, sure, Miliband is not a stupid man, merely an unthinking man. Anytime there’s a problem he calls for an inquiry. That, Tories should argue, is a sign of a man who either doesn’t know his own mind or lacks the confidence to force the argument himself. In neither case does it suggest he has what it takes to lead the country. Ed’s a follower, not a leader.
So – at the risk of suggesting that other people could in this instance be persuaded to believe what I believe too – I’d recommend that the Tories use Leveson (and a couple of other comparable examples) as a means by which they can define Miliband in these negative terms. Miliband doesn’t have ideas; he has other people’s ideas. That’s fine for middle-management in some sleepy suburban backwater. It shouldn’t be enough for Downing Street.