Calling Time on Reckless Editors

Article excerpt

The notion may not come easily to some New Statesman readers but we owe David Mellor a debt. When he spoke in 1989 of the press "drinking in the last-chance saloon", he gave us a metaphor for the doomed fecklessness of editors and proprietors that is as potent as anything a Sun headline writer ever dreamed up.

His metaphor had to pass through a long period of ridicule or irrelevance as the saloon's customers enjoyed round after round for 23 years, but now, thanks to the Leveson inquiry, it is back--and age has made it much more powerful.

That those who own and run our national papers were given so many last chances and that they squandered them so thoughtlessly and at such cost to so many surely removes the last doubt about the need to call time. We can now cast Lord justice Leveson as the bartender who, shotgun at the ready, must sweep his drunken clientele into the street and bolt the door behind them.

When Mellor spoke of a last chance, he meant a last chance for self-regulation, the arrangement by which, since 1953, the press has been accountable to itself and not to any independent body when things go wrong. As followers of the Leveson inquiry will know, self-regulation gave us--or failed to prevent--hacking, blagging, the Sun's Hillsborough coverage, the McCann affair, the Christopher Jefferies affair and much more.

So comprehensive has been its discrediting that even those who a few years ago boasted that it was an example to the world now accept that it didn't adequately serve the British public and that its most recent incarnation as the Press Complaints Commission didn't qualify as a regulator at all.

Raymond Snoddy, in his book The Good, the Bad and the Unacceptable, describes how, in 1990, a year after Mellor issued his warning, Rupert Murdoch asked the Calcutt committee (inquiring into privacy and press misconduct) for another chance. "Another chance? …