If you wanted evidence that Cameron is the “heir to Blair”, his demand for tougher press regulation, with its typically New Labour knee-jerk statism, provides it.
There are (at least) six reasons to be sceptical about whether tougher regulation will work:
1. Regulation is not a magic bullet. The financial services industry has been quite tightly regulated for years, but it is not famous for having served its customers well.
2. The NotW’s misdeeds are not just a failure of the PCC but - much more seriously - a failure of the police to uphold the law. Intercepting communications and bribing policemen are criminal offences. But the investigation into these was “pretty crap.” It is, surely, a vastly higher priority to ensure that the police do their job properly than to reform press regulation.
3. There is a trade-off between two (supposedly) desirable features of the press - that they print the truth and that they respect privacy. If you impose tougher sanctions on the papers for printing untruths, they will respond by making more effort to back up their stories, which will lead to more intrusion into private lives. Conversely, tough restrictions on the press’s ability to investigate stories will lead to more false ones being published. And a clampdown on both will just accelerate the demise of investigative journalism.
4. In practice, it is difficult to distinguish clearly between matters of legitimate public interest and salacious tittle-tattle. And it's even more difficult to do so when those who want to regulate the press - politicians and the powerful - have no interest in making such a distinction. Tougher regulation, then, won’t just mean fewer stories about Kerry Katona’s cha-cha, but also even fewer attempts to “humiliate the powerful.”
5. The NotW’s motive in phone-hacking and bribing coppers was to give its customers what they want - which is often, as Orwell pointed out in 1946, a good murder. And it was pretty successful in this: its sales, remember, outnumbered those of the Observer by nine-to-one. In this respect, regulating the press is very different from regulating financial services, medicines or food. In the latter cases, regulation tries to protect customers from products that don’t satisfy their wishes. In the case of the press, regulation tries to stop customers getting what they want.
6. The issue here is not, as Ben Chu claims, the power of the press to “bully politicians who have the nerve to challenge their reactionary world view.” No amount of regulation short of drastic infringements of free speech will prevent this. In fact, regulation might actually increase such bullying. If papers can’t attract readers by running exclusive stories, they might try to do so by devoting more space to rentagob columnists. If anything, regulation might actually work in the interests of Richard Littlecock. And no right-thinking person, surely, wants that.