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Guardians of a free press in this topsy-turvy world

"Now, if you'll only attend, Kitty, and not talk so much, I'll tell you all my ideas about Looking-Glass House.

First, there's the room you can see through the glass – that's just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way."

– Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll

WHILE one does not need to be an admirer of Carroll's works to navigate the post-Leveson landscape, by the Red Queen it helps. Is the Red Queen even wearing radical scarlet any more, or is she sporting a fetching shade of Tory blue?

It was, after all, a Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, who yesterday in the Commons looked like the bold defender of press freedom. He was all for tougher self-regulation, he told MPs, but he had "serious concerns and misgivings" about whether, as Lord Leveson recommended, this had to be backed by legislation.

Passing a new law, said Mr Cameron, would be crossing a Rubicon. "We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and the free press. The danger is that this would create a vehicle for politicians whether today or some time in the future to impose regulation and obligations on the press." Yes, yes, and yes again, Prime Minister.

In contrast, Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, was all for accepting the report's recommendations in their entirety, Leveson law and all. Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader, also booked an all-inclusive passage across that Rubicon.

Welcome to Britain through the looking glass, where the mild-mannered and essentially well-meaning nanny stater has turned into a scowling big brother. Where one-time trendy lefties have become the new puritans, keen to clean up society and shape it in their image. Where Michael Gove, Lord help us, comes across as a groovy rebel, Che in sensible specs.

Just as bizarre, welcome to a world where showbusiness personalities have become Gladstonian reformers (all baggage conveniently forgotten, of course). On the eve of the Leveson report being published, Channel 4, once the Keef Richards of British television, gave Hugh Grant, the actor turned Hacked Off campaigner, an hour in which to show why he wants to clean up Britain's press. Hugh Grant: Taking on the Tabloids showed the actor interviewing, among others, former reporters, current editors, and Lord Hunt of Wirral, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission.

The last encounter was particularly illuminating. There was Lord Hunt, a Tory MP since 1976, a minister under Mrs Thatcher and John Major, a patrician sort from the top of his clever head to the tip of his Church-clad toes. Opposite him was Mr Grant, casually dressed, modern, righteously angry about his cause. It should have been stuffy old Britain versus new, breath-of-fresh-air UK. If you were of a certain mindset, a particular generation, it ought to have been obvious which side to be on, but if Leveson has shown us anything it is that the old order is perhaps not as stuffy or predictable as we used to think, and that the new masters are worth keeping a careful eye on. When Lord Hunt asked Mr Grant what was so terribly wrong with a contractual system under which newspapers agree to abide by a set of rules, Mr Grant's response was to remind Lord Hunt that he was the one asking the questions.

One wonders how pretty is the pass we have come to when those arguing for a Leveson law hail in large part from Labour and the LibDems. There are, of course, exceptions among those parties, and rebels among the Tories too, but most of the waverers and the new nanny staters are to be found on the centre left.

It is puzzling, and troubling, behaviour. A positive view is that they simply want to do their best for the victims of press wrongdoing. Who does not? Those in favour of regulation do not have a monopoly on caring. No-one wishes the abuses of the past to be repeated; where disagreement occurs is how best to prevent or punish them in future. In short, should a carrot be dangled or a dirty great stick employed?

There are, let us not forget, already sticks in the form of civil and criminal law. Where there are cases to answer they are proceeding through the courts. The system took too long to work, it required the press itself to hit the start button, but wheels are turning. Where a case is not going to court, the culprits have already been shamed in that fabled dock of public opinion. If you think the average member of the public has contempt for the chancers who disgraced their trade you should hear what their former colleagues have to say.

The Left should be going nowhere near a Leveson law, yet all around there are ifs and buts and maybes. Why of course they would never normally be in favour, but these are extraordinary times are they not? Of course they would not want to shackle freedom of expression, but what if it was a nice liberal-minded sort putting on the handcuffs? Maybe it wouldn't be so bad?

This is misguided to the point of recklessness. The uncharitable view might be that old scores are being settled here, or that the Left is going back to its old paranoid ways. Unaccustomed as they are to getting a good press – from the Zinoviev letter to the Kinnock front page asking the last person left in Britain to turn out the lights if Labour wins the election – the Left would not mind a more level playing field, a new, firmer headmaster to stand up to the bullies. As for the LibDems, it is hard to know which is the stronger: their natural urge to reform or their distaste for the vulgar ways of the press. Like Victorian ladies clutching perfumed handkerchiefs to their noses and venturing into the slums to save fallen women, the LibDems are not entirely sure what they are doing but they do mean awfully well.

Many is the mistake made by those who mean well, who in attempting to make things right usher in a great wrong. For all the cloudiness of Leveson's report (one cannot see his dry tome becoming a best-seller like the 9/11 Commission Report), the matter of a Leveson law comes down to this: If you take away the freedom of the press today, who will ever give it back?

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