Brian Cathcart

The Cairncross Review: it was a con

Why has the government binned the key recommendation of its own report on the future of journalism? Because it was only ever meant as a distraction

Two years ago, when the government was desperately struggling for a majority in the Commons to support scrapping part two of the Leveson Inquiry, the then Culture Secretary Matt Hancock came up with an idea.

An inquiry such as Leveson 2 into the criminal activities of the upper reaches of the national press, he decided, was ‘backward-looking’. (He might try saying that today to the Dowler family, who have just read allegations that a second newspaper was illegally trolling them and their murdered daughter.) 

Instead of looking back, Hancock told us, we needed a ‘forward-looking’ inquiry into the future of ‘high-quality journalism’, as he called it (and in his book this seemed to include the Sun and the Mail).

So in March 2018 he set up the Cairncross Review as an implicit substitute for Leveson 2 – and the gesture may well have helped politically because Leveson 2 was eventually cancelled by a margin of just nine votes.

But the Review had been promised, so it duly went ahead, with a cast of personnel that might have been (and probably were) handpicked by the big newspaper groups. And it eventually produced a report that, I will admit, was not as bad as I had warned it might be. 

But the report was just so many words. Only today, a year later, have we learned what the government will actually do about this set of recommendations. And its response amply confirms Matt Hancock’s gross dishonesty on this matter. 

Because his successor, Nicky, Baroness Morgan, has done what we can safely assume was always likely. She has binned the Cairncross Review’s central recommendation that we need an Institute for Public Interest News – ‘a dedicated body [that] could amplify efforts to ensure the future sustainability of public-interest news, working in partnership with news publishers and the online platforms’.

And the excuse Morgan gives is this: the idea ‘risks perceptions of inappropriate government interference with the press’. (As if, for example, having a Tory peer and ex-government minister running the press complaints body IPSO doesn’t risk such perceptions.)

This is a transparent pretext. If the government really wanted to set up the Institute in a way that made it independent of political influence it could easily have done so. Indeed Cairncross herself said in her report: ‘Its governance [that is, the governance of the Institute] should be carefully designed to ensure complete freedom from any obligations, political or commercial.’ 

Morgan could have got someone to do the careful designing but she didn’t. Which reveals the real explanation: the whole exercise was a sham from the start, an illusion conjured up by Matt Hancock to trick MPs into scrapping Leveson 2 and letting an army of corrupt, mostly Tory-supporting press bosses escape the scrutiny which his own party had promised to their victims and to the country.

This is not to suggest that Dame Frances and her panel were all insincere. But whatever their motives,  they have been used in a political game designed to shield the gang of people who oversaw industrial-scale phone hacking and data theft in the press. 

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