I am watching Richard Thomas being put through the wringer of the Leveson enquiry via the live feed. The counsel was giving him a hard time about not going for the journalists either at all or only indirectly via approaches to the Press Complaints Commission. But it was not just Richard that was in the hot seat. It was the way we all did consumer policy in the past 20 years ever since John Methven, the early years of the Office of Fair Trading and the brave new world of self-regulatory codes developed with trade bodies. Richard had to justify his choices on deciding how to follow up on information received and in doing so, he quoted a letter he sent to the Chair of the Press Complaints Commission. From this it was clear that Richard was working to those tenets of the consumer policy principles that we both developed and worked to. He had been advised that prosecution was going to be hard and expensive and so he fell back on that consumer policy – looking to the trade body for action under a code of practice in a way that would change behaviours but without recourse to the criminal law – this being cheaper and quicker than the alternatives. This is being taken as a indicator of his reluctance to take on the journalists. It is not – it is an indication of his readiness to improve pulling the self-regulatory levers that existed at the time. Also as he admitted this morning he was mistaken about the PCC. He assumed that it undertook the sort of regulatory work that the Advertising Standards Authority did but he was wrong – it was just a complaint handling body and not a very good one at that. Now Richard wishes he had been more assertive with the PCC. Only now is it being clearer that the PCC were trying to nudge their membership along but with no success.
So in part his reluctance to go legal is a product of the mood of the policy of the day. But his other more managerial concerns illuminate the area where the demands of public policy cross over into the realities of office budgets and resources. How much will this cost? How likely are we to win? Will we get the political support we need? Now even in these times when regulation is preferred to the weedy and woolly self-regulatory approach, the questions will not go away. The fact that a law exists does not mean it is enforced. What will produce the better set of outcomes?
Must get back to the live feed. We are getting to the bit about calls from Jack Straw about pulling the bill and then calls about withdrawing the clause that increased the penaltiesand the moment of the summons to No 10 and discussion with Gordon and the unsuccessful search for a comprimise. Result – the clause was dropped. Hot stuff.