A cultural highlight of the year would have to be the Leveson enquiry, which, like every other British television drama of 2012, failed to deliver anywhere near as much drama as it promised. There was no real drama at Leveson at all. The Guardian marvelled at Robert Jay QC’s mastery of the English language while the redtops nervously sniggered at him and flicked chewing gum in his hair. Hugh Grant decided he’d had enough and began his campaign against press intrusion and simultaneously proved he can deliver a good speech whilst looking you in the eye. Steve Coogan gave an admirably sombre performance as Rupert Murdoch’s nemesis before selling his new series of Alan Partridge to Sky. Charlotte Church, JK Rowling and Sienna Miller came out of it rather better, I thought, although you wouldn’t know that to read the press. If there’s one thing you can depend on the tabloid media for, it’s self-righteous misogyny. The author of Harry Potter in particular told of the occasion when a hack placed a note in her son’s school bag asking for an interview. There are members of the print media who seem to think that is a reasonable way to behave. And it seems that the members of the political class agree with them. ‘There are already laws in place telling us what we can and cannot do,’ say the press. And it is not illegal to put notes in the knapsacks of small children, they and their supporters go on to mumble under their breath.
Politicians old and new came and went during the enquiry. Blair blinked and blustered, began every other sentence with a slow emphatic karate chop and his trademark form of Mount Sinai delivery: ‘Look,’ he always says, as if we have missed the point, misunderstood the point, or just missed his anointing at the right hand of God Almighty. Gordon Brown turned up looking bruised and battered, twitchy still, an old war horse, like Menelaus still trying to figure out who stole his bride. Jeremy Hunt had no trouble employing his stiff upper lip, seeing as he is made of wood, and not straw as was previously believed. Leveson attested that he saw no evidence of misbehaviour in the relationship between Hunt and the Murdoch minions whom Hunt took many opportunities to publicly champion. It was not the only time the unmistakeable aroma of horse manure wafted through the hallowed halls of the Royal Courts of Justice. Our esteemed prime minister and water boy for the Chipping Norton set, David Cameron, stood firm in the face of the gentle breeze of public despair in reaction to the nature of his relationship with Rebekah Brooks. He rode her horse, or something, a horse that was donated by the stable boy from her personal security firm – or The Met, as we otherwise know them. Regardless, we British seem to feel safer with our crooks as long we’re able to mock them. Brooks may still go to jail. Andy Coulson may also. But blame was not on the agenda for Chief Justice Leveson. He was there to gather the testimony and recommend to the government the very best way to make the press behave themselves. Cameron asked him to do it. He did it. Cameron, however, knows better. Doesn’t he always.
Leveson was expensive, time consuming and largely pointless. Many suspicions were confirmed, however. Most notably that a certain strata of our nation’s journalists have appointed themselves our moral Knights Templar, which smacks a little of the Vulpine Society telling the chickens where to piss. Barely a week has gone by in 2012 without another revolting story about – at best – the lack of journalistic ethics within important parts of the industry. If we the public have gained little else this year it is the positioning at the centre stage of journalism’s disrepute. Has the truth about Hillsborough brought justice for the 96? Not as yet, but at least Question Time has let up on the seemingly fortnightly appearance of Kelvin MacKenzie. These victories, as the families of the Hillsborough victims know all too well, come in inches, not yards.
So, after all the Leveson theatrics Cameron made a political decision, not a moral one – ‘morality’ being a buzzword of the inquiry that has quickly fallen out of the vocabulary of the aftermath. He has decided to please the press barons and usurp the party limelight of anti-Leveson goons like Michael Gove, an ex-newspaperman who is often referred to as a likely Cameron successor. That’s successor as leader of the Tories, as Cameron has pretty much secured his place as water boy to the Chipping Norton set for some time to come.
So what about the anti-Leveson lobby? A group of politicians and newspaper professionals who believe, against all the evidence, that the press can take care of this themselves. The arguments against Leveson’s proposals are as convincing as they are Sanskrit. ‘Leveson would be the beginning of the end of the free press in this Great Nation’, say the press barons who flagrantly push their own political agendas in the pursuit of immense wealth and power. Press freedom, it seems, is something that must be on offer so it can be taken advantage of, rather than is something that forms an unshakeable moral core.
Other Typical Tory humdingers include old rich white men lecturing into news cameras on how African despots, hitherto used to using automatic weapons and the money garnered from Hatton Garden diamonds, would quickly point to the statutory underpinning of press regulation as a way to undemocratically control their populace. Mark Thatcher, (son of Our Lady of the Iron, Margaret Thatcher), who was arrested, you may remember, in 2004 for his involvement in a plot to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea, must have been livid he was not called to give testimony at Leveson, seeing as he has a unique insight into the moral questions surrounding how Africans govern themselves.
‘Just how robust are the techniques of African despots in the control of their oppressed peoples, Mr Thatcher,’ Lord Leveson would have asked. ‘They have near absolute control,’ Mr Thatcher would say. ‘They have armies, secret police, village militias with machetes, they use bombs and guns and militarised rape, and in many cases have the powerful support of foreign governments and the Church of Rome. Please, please, Lord Leveson,’ Mr Thatcher would have said; ‘Don’t make matters worse by giving them ideas about the statutory underpinning of press regulation. It would be the end of the world for those people.’
I have heard Chris Grayling – perhaps the shiftiest looking man in the cabinet, and that is some tough competition when you have Francis Maude sitting next to you breathing through his eye lids – say, ‘The eyes of the world are upon us.’ No, they’re not. And they haven’t been since Suez. It’s time to do the right thing and stop worrying about what effect it will have on the British Empire.
At this point a special mention must go to the Government, their coalition partners, and the Opposition, for the unparalleled lack of artistry they have managed to imbue into the theatre of British politics in 2012. In fact, Cameron’s brood of millionaires and corporate smash ‘n’ grabbers have been so artless in their absurdity they have made Margaret Thatcher look more like Luigi Pirandello in her attempts to disassemble the fabric of our sustainable reality. The Liberal Democrats (who have proved so spineless, pale and pathetic that they have even made me hate Shirley Williams, of all people) are beginning to ape Beckett’s hopeful vagabonds Vladimir and Estragon, fooling themselves into thinking the dead naked tree of the Tory party is providing shelter from the storm rather than a convenient scaffold from which they are in the process of hanging themselves. And the Labour Party, too often playing the man and not the ball, one suspects are often so quiet because they don’t really disagree with the government on policy; they don’t have the gall, despite having the Balls, to be Richard III about this. They’re really not whispering asides at us from the shadows. If only they were.
Which brings us back to Leveson. Labour and the Tories have found a paper-thin disagreement about something at last. But the difference is over something insignificant. Leveson has proposed a thoughtful response to the needs of victims of press misbehaviour. The vast majority of journalists who would never find themselves in any kind of professional moral transgression need pay little attention to any of these debates. So who has a problem with shinning the scumbag minority? Neither party. If we retain the artful analogy, PMQs is little more than a Rothko exhibition where all of the paintings have been composed by monkeys brandishing biros in their fists.
Leveson was a test – it was a test for the government, and although they haven’t failed the test, they are failing it, nobody can have much doubt about that. Even those old rich white men who so desperately, suddenly, conveniently, care about the future of Africa’s democracies, know that on a moral level Downing Street is not up to scratch on this one. But it was also a test for the media who covered it. Twitter – that’s right the Twitter the old guard have such a cynical view of – is capable of making a brief drama out of a hashtag, so Leveson, in the eye of the moment, was child’s play. But otherwise Leveson was the theatre of the damned, the damnable and the damning, and nobody died at the end. The Leveson Inquiry counteracted Chekhov’s maxim for effective theatre for there was a veritable arsenal of revolvers in the first act and not one of them went off in the second. By the end some of us would have been happy with a piece of scrap paper that had BANG written on it. But by the looks of it you’d have to be at the Cameron breakfast table as he opened his mail to get a look at that note, his brow becoming moist and his podgy hammy face getting paler as he realised it was written in Rupert Murdoch’s hand.