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Roy Greenslade

Report in danger of gathering dust

British Journalism Review
Vol. 23, No. 3, 2012, pages 20-26


Roy Greenslade is Professor of Journalism at City University, London. He writes a blog for The Guardian and a column for the London Evening Standard.


Contents - Vol 23, No 3, 2012

Editorial - Keeping the flame alive 3


Not finally... Subjective views on matters journalistic 5
Matthew Engel, Phillip Knightley, Andrew Gimson, Paul Donovan, Claire Bolderson

The Leveson Inquiry
Roy Greenslade - Report is in danger of gathering dust 20

Stephen Brook - You say Leveson; we say Finkelstein 27

John Mair - Confessions of a ‘hackademic’ 34


Kevin Marsh - The inside story of the BBC and Hutton 41

Christian Christensen - WikiLeaks: Taking our eyes off the prize 48

Kim Sengupta - Taking orders from the insurgents 55

Peter Oborne - Is the British press really so feral? 61

Caroline Kean - Privacy: Putting Article 8 back in the box 69

BOOK REVIEWS
Richard Tait on Alex Crawford & Lindsey Hilsum 77
Robin Lustig on Jeremy Vine 80
Paul Routledge on W Sydney Robinson 82
Anthony Delano on Alex Mitchell 84
Bill Hagerty on Robert Edwards 86
Quotes of the Quarter – 19
Twitter Watch - 40
Olympic Quotes of the Quarter - 75
Ten years ago The way we were - 54
Paul Foot Award - 76
Charles Wheeler Award - 88
Postscript - ibc


 

History has taught us that the Leveson Inquiry may not spark a radical reform of the press, according to a media commentator

At various points during his eponymous inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British media, Lord Justice Leveson has made it clear he hopes to achieve something of lasting value. He has read the history. He knows we have been here before. Since the Second World War, there have been three royal commissions on the press plus two government-sponsored inquiries, chaired by Sir David Calcutt in the early 1990s, on “privacy and related matters”.

On all five occasions, publishers and editors made no attempt to disguise their resentment at the poking of official noses into their affairs. Similarly, by marching behind the banner of press freedom, they resisted, or watered down, each recommendation for regulatory reform. For example, the 1974-77 Royal Commission on the Press, repeating earlier calls, urged the drawing up of a code of ethics for newspapers. None was forthcoming until Calcutt’s first report in 1990. Most significantly, the industry managed to survive Calcutt’s second report in 1993, a pessimistic review of the pioneering months of self-regulation under the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), in which he demanded its replacement with a statutory tribunal.

Calcutt was ignored because publishers swiftly and deftly tinkered with the PCC’s composition and John Major’s Conservative government, reeling from press hostility over the Exchange Rate Mechanism fiasco just three months before, could not bring itself to antagonise newspaper owners further. (He had hopes, which never were realised, of regaining press support). Despite Leveson’s express wish to avoid Calcutt’s fate, in which a radical report gathered dust on a Whitehall shelf, I believe it very likely that history is going to repeat itself.

Before pursuing that argument, let’s take account of what Sir Brian Leveson and his team of lawyers and panel of assessors have accomplished. Whatever one’s views about the relevance and remit of the inquiry, it has been impressive in its organisation, the comprehensiveness of its evidencegathering and the speed of its work. The figures speak for themselves. By the time the inquiry concluded its formal examination of witnesses on July 24, 2012, it had taken testimonies, either in person or in writing, from 650 witnesses, thus generating more than 6,000 pages of evidence. That is some achievement, given that the hearings did not begin until November 14, 2011.


Celebrities grabbed the headlines

Beyond the figures, consider also the profiles of the witnesses, which ranged from the victims of press intrusion to newspaper proprietors and from the country’s most senior police officers to the current prime minister and three of his predecessors. Every national newspaper publisher testified, as did every editor, plus many journalists, past and present. Early on in the process, celebrities got the major headlines, proving their insistent point about them being a media obsession. More poignant, and more important, was the evidence from the parents of Milly Dowler, the 13-year-old murdered girl whose mobile phone voicemail messages were intercepted by the News of the World, the key event that transformed phone-hacking from a story that attracted little public attention into the most important media story of modern times. The appearance of another couple, Kate and Gerry McCann, victims of a media feeding frenzy after the disappearance of their three-year-old daughter, Madeleine, struck a chord. So did that of Christopher Jefferies, an innocent man libelled by newspapers after he was wrongly arrested during an investigation into the murder of a woman who rented a room in his house.

Along the way, there were several set-piece moments, such as the appearances of Rupert Murdoch, his son, James, the former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, the ex-News of the World editor and former Downing Street director of communications, Andy Coulson, Prime Minister David Cameron and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Hunt.

By coincidence, the conclusion of Leveson’s oral hearings was marked by a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announcement that eight people, including Brooks and Coulson, were to face charges of conspiracy to intercept communications without lawful authority. Five former News of the World staff were also indicted on similar charges, as was the private investigator who was contracted to the paper, Glenn Mulcaire. In total, the CPS listed 19 counts of hacking involving more than 600 people. In a previous move, the CPS had charged Brooks, her husband, her PA, her chauffeur, and two News International security men with conspiracy to pervert the cause of justice. And Coulson had been charged in Scotland with perjury.

These legal actions are a reminder of the central contradiction at the heart of the Leveson inquiry. It was set up as the result of the News of the World hacking revelations and a key part of its remit was to inquire into hacking. Yet it has not been able to touch on that serious matter and, in all probability, never will. Instead, it has looked at other unrelated claims of press misbehaviour. In other words, it has been required to make sense of the circumstances that led journalists to hack phones without specifically dealing with the issue itself. This has provided editors with a defence for their own position that uncannily echoes the original response by News International to The Guardian’s original allegations about hacking.

For two years, The Guardian’s determined reporter, Nick Davies, wrote articles alleging that several News of the World staff had engaged in hacking. The paper and its publisher issued strenuous denials built around the contention that hacking had been carried out by a single “rogue reporter”. That defence was blown wide open once the Milly Dowler story broke. During the Leveson hearings, editors battened on to a form of the same defence by asserting that Leveson has been a waste of time – and a slur on all popular journalism – because the ethical lapses that gave rise to its creation were the result of one “rogue newspaper” (or merely one rogue cabal within that paper) and, moreover, that problem had been solved by News International’s closure of the title.

Pursuing the logic of that argument, editors have been eager to point to the virtues of the current self-regulatory machinery. They have conceded that the PCC has faults, not least the fact that it acts as a mediator and arbitrator rather than a regulator. It is impossible to acknowledge that reality without a broad smile: ever since the PCC’s formation in 1991, a succession of PCC chairmen and directors, in company with editors, routinely referred to it as a regulator. Suddenly, post-hacking, they told Leveson with a straight face it wasn’t a regulator after all.

Now publishers and editors are striving to preserve the PCC in largely similar fashion, but with additional powers to deal with those (implicitly infrequent) incidents when papers go off the rails. Editors have been desperate to avoid the state playing even a walk-on role in press regulation. To that end, Lord Black, who chairs the PCC’s overseer and paymaster, the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBof ), and Lord Hunt, the PCC’s chairman, have come up with a system they refer to as “independent self-regulation”. They placed before Leveson a complex set of proposals that preserve self-regulation through the creation of a commercial contract system.


New body would amount to a PCC-Plus

Publishers would “volunteer” to sign up to a five-year contract to be regulated by a sort of souped-up, reconstituted and renamed PCC. Though Black and Hunt dislike the claim that this amounts to PCC-Plus, the description is relevant. It would retain its mediation arm and gain a standards-and-compliance arm, with the power to launch investigations, fine errant newspapers and generally adopt a more pro-active stance. The publishers, having accepted the contract’s rules, would then be obliged to accept the censures of the new body, including any fines. As I write, the exact details are still in the process of being discussed and there is the possibility that external criticisms will lead to amendments. Questions have been raised about the industry’s continuing hold on the purse strings, the methods of appointing its senior figures and the inclusion of serving editors in the body. A suggestion that rule-breaking journalists could be denied press cards remains controversial. There is also a belief that the contract does not adequately deal with the problem of regulating internet-based news and current affairs outlets.

One very important issue, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), is not properly addressed. All publishers and editors remain concerned at the ever-rising legal bills for fighting libel and privacy actions. However, as Lord Black has readily conceded, the new regulatory system could easily accommodate a separate ADR tribunal to allow for publishers to negotiate with complainants in order to avoid costly trials. This might prove a welcome addition to the whole system. Whether such a body will require legislation, in order to compel pre-trial arbitration, is unclear. What is undisputed is the crying need for libel law reform in order to remove the undoubted chill on both press freedom and freedom of expression. The parallel passage of a parliamentary bill on defamation has therefore proved timely, but it won’t have any effect on Leveson’s decision.

Despite the widespread criticism of self-regulation aired by politicians, media academics and the Media Standards Trust (MST), it is noticeable that the Black-Hunt initiative – or some form of it – is virtually the only game in town. The unequivocal support for “the principle of press selfregulation” advocated by the MST in an under-reported sixth submission to the Leveson inquiry is a tacit acceptance that the contract plan might work. It was significant that the Trust included the results of an opinion poll showing that the public is overwhelmingly against state involvement. By contrast, the National Union of Journalists, in company with several media academics, has argued that “statutory underpinning of regulation is not the same as statutory regulation”. The very fact that a number of politicians agree with the NUJ is a key reason that editors, notably the influential Mail group editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre, doubt the wisdom of allowing the state anywhere near press regulation.

Dacre has been the most outspoken critic of the Leveson process, barely concealing his loathing for it as he articulates the concerns of populist journalists who fear the serious side of the press is seeking to curb their more rugged form of journalism. These concerns centre on a distinction mentioned time after time by inquiry witnesses: what is in the public interest is different from what interests the public. The former is regarded as the justification for what might be called “high journalism”, that which informs and educates. The latter is merely that which entertains and, continuing the analogy, is therefore to be regarded as “low journalism”. Noone has put it in such pejorative terms, but these constructs are obvious without the need to read between the lines.

This distinction has led to objections – notably by Peter Preston, the former Guardian editor – about imposing the same code on every paper (and magazine) plus a one-size-fits-all regulator across the entire press industry. I am sure Leveson would find the notion of separate codes and regulators implausible, nor would it satisfy the witnesses who lined up to tell tales of press misbehaviour. But it does illustrate one essential truth that Dacre has seized upon – press regulation is all about serious newspapers imposing their ethics on less serious newspapers. It is as well to remember that the man who led the charge in 1990 was the then editor, and founder, of The Independent, Andreas Whittam Smith. His enthusiasm for a proper code administered by a new regulator to replace the Press Council was prompted by his worry about parliament enacting a privacy law, which would inhibit public interest journalism.

Other editors, also rattled by political interference, rallied to Whittam Smith’s side, and the publishers pulled out all the stops. So Calcutt, albeit reluctantly, gave the PCC a chance to show what it could do. By the time he decided the experiment had not worked, some two years later, the political impetus for radical action and the necessary confrontation with publishers and editors had vanished. Calcutt’s call for statutory regulation was ignored. I cannot but think that history is about to repeat itself.


Editors would fight statutory involvement

Once again, the industry – this time cleverly orchestrated by Lords Black and Hunt – has created a practical plan of action to preserve self-regulation. If Leveson approves it, then the job will be done because the coalition government will surely nod it through. If Leveson should instead suggest some form of statutory involvement, it will unleash a storm of public criticism by editors. They will use their papers to mount press freedom campaigns. Leveson, who has heard so much about newspaper feeding frenzies in the past year, will find himself at the centre of one. In private, publishers will also lobby fiercely in parliament.

Given the standing of the government now, let alone in the future as the next general election looms, the chances of it daring to legislate on press regulation is virtually nil. This may sound cynical. I prefer to see it for what it is – realpolitik. Nor should we see this inevitable outcome as a negation of all that the Leveson inquiry has achieved. The replacement body, if it is anything like the blueprint, will be better than the PCC. There could be radical changes, such as a conscience clause within a new code of practice, to enable journalists the chance to refuse to act unethically, and certainly illegally. Backsliding papers will be taken to task more readily. No editor will call on the services of a private investigator. Kiss-and-tell stories have already disappeared. As for Murdoch, the locus of so much controversy, he is now a busted flush in political terms.

Leaving all that to one side, it should be understood that the power of the press, as it has been termed for the best part of 80 years, is on the wane. Sales will continue to dribble away. Profits will go on tumbling. And the rise of the internet will not cease. None of this will delight Lord Justice Leveson, of course. For his sake, let’s hope the shelf is not too dusty.