The Triumph of Cynicism Part One
Members of Parliament speak with one voice rarely.
The Government’s desperate suppression of Leveson Part Two, justified by statements in Parliament which were “in my opinion… designed to mislead”, sent a message: “telling the truth in Parliament no longer mattered”
One of those occasions was in 2011 when the House of Commons Chamber listened intently to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, recount the chilling history of the hacking of teenager Milly Dowler’s telephone following her disappearance and murder and what the Government he led intended to do about it:
“Clearly there are two pieces of work that have to be done. First, we need a full investigation into wrongdoing in the press and the police…. Secondly, we need a review of regulation of the press…..after listening carefully, we have decided that the best way to proceed is with one inquiry, but in two parts.”
PART ONE: The Commons Agrees – for now.
This was to become the Leveson Inquiry and no-one in the Chamber that day disagreed. From the start, this was a subject of special interest to me.
Years previously, before I entered Parliament, I had acted as a lawyer for Trevor Rees-Jones, the bodyguard who was the sole survivor of the car crash that killed Diana, Princess of Wales. I had seen Trevor, a victim of crime, seriously injured and unconscious in hospital, catapulted into the eye of a media storm. Those close to him, concerned for his life, were media targets too. Their lives were invaded by a press hungry for any personal information. Trevor’s family was treated as public property, with no regard to the impact on their lives, despite their intense fears as to Trevor’s fate.
When I saw Milly Dowler’s family in news reports, the Rees-Jones’s came to my mind. Then I saw that the unanimity in the House of Commons Chamber that day, created by the actions of newspapers lacking any moral perspective, was a unique moment. We could try to make sure that, in future, the ordeals of the Dowler family like Rees-Jones’ before them, would not be repeated.
The power of the tabloid press
I had seen the power of the tabloid press in the UK since my election in 2001. Even with very comfortable Parliamentary majorities, the Labour Government had worked constantly to keep newspapers, particularly News International, onside. Any policy pronouncement which alienated “The Sun” in particular was viewed by the Labour Government as reckless. Its endorsement of Tony Blair prior to 1997 had been perceived and presented as a seismic moment by a Labour Party scarred by 18 years in Opposition and frustrated by a largely hostile set of newspapers.
For me, this explained why it was that, despite Sun Editor Rebekah Brooks’ admission to a Parliamentary Committee in 2004 that her newspaper had made illegal payments to police officers, nothing had happened. There was too much to lose – especially the precarious support of the largest selling tabloid in the UK.
I saw what that meant in 2009. A weak Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was at the Labour Party Conference, working desperately to shore up support and inject confidence into a Party facing defeat at the General Election to come. I was in the room when the Brown team heard the news that Labour had dreaded since the 1997 endorsement – The Sun was shifting its support to David Cameron’s Conservatives and was doing so at a time to inflict maximum damage to the Prime Minister. A chill went round the room as I saw in action the political power News International had at that time.
The Dowler affair was so important because it showed that, despite all the political power of News International, that power had limits. Where a single, bereaved family had lost a child, the public would not forgive indefensible acts against that family. For any political party, whilst public attention was focussed on the Dowlers’ plight, the cost of supporting any news organisation responsible for such actions was too high.
I believe that it was for that reason, in the febrile atmosphere of the House of Commons Chamber in 2011, David Cameron knew that he had no alternative other than to open the Pandora’s Box that was the Leveson Inquiry. What no-one knew at the time was that, before all of its contents were revealed, the lid on Pandora’s Box would be slammed shut again.
Writer & Author
Ian Lucas was Labour MP for Wrexham from 2001 to 2019, and a member of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee from 2017 to 2019, during its inquiry into disinformation and fake news.