With the publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report, the debate on the behaviour of the British press has shifted focus. The question of whether and to what extent elements of the press abused their power and damaged innocent people is largely settled.
The public debate now is centred on whether the Leveson report proposes effective ways of preventing similar abuses happening again. Leveson found that the existing system for addressing press conduct, the Press Complaints Council, is useless and, in practice ignored by the very people who drew up its code of conduct. He proposes a new self-regulation body which is independent of serving editors, owners and government and whose role includes “promoting high standards”.
The most contentious part of his report recommends that this body be backed by legislation, known as “statutory underpinning”, which would be designed to assess whether the regulatory body was doing its job. Another key inclusion in his report is a conscience clause which would give journalists access to a whistle-blowing hotline.
Given the privilege of first reaction, David Cameron made it clear that he did not want to implement the full report. Aware that this was likely to be an unpopular stance, he framed the debate as one between freedom of the press and state control.
Labour, the Lib Dems and “Hacked Off” campaign all declared their support for the recommendations.
Although the matter of holding the press to account is a complex one, it is important to be clear that Cameron’s attempt to grab some moral high ground here is cynical hypocrisy. He remains a slavish promoter of the interests of the very press barons Leveson seeks to monitor. He met with them just before the report was published and will have been told in no uncertain terms that the price of implementing Leveson could well be a lot higher than that of rejecting or fudging it.
The Dowler family were right to remind him that, when he was forced to set up the Inquiry, he promised to implement its recommendations “unless they were bonkers”. There have been lots of attempts to analyse the report’s conclusions, but not even the rabid Sun has described them as “bonkers”. Cameron will find it hard to get away with ignoring the proposal for independent regulation, and rightly so.
Whatever the weakness and flaws in Leveson, it is not serious to claim that it represents state control or anything close to it. There is also little compelling evidence that it would limit the freedom of journalists to investigate the powerful and expose corruption. It is noticeable that the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) came out in favour of the report, and that Nick Davies, the dogged and proudly independent journalist responsible for much of the phone-hacking stories, also responded favourably.
A less well-publicised recommendation is that the duty of government to protect the freedom of the press should be enshrined in law for the first time in the UK’s history.
The attempt to polarise the post-Leveson debate around press freedom is, for the most part, misleading and confusing.
If implemented the report would establish a modest and more public system for holding newspaper organisations accountable for their actions.
Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty (who was also an adviser to Leveson) found herself feted by the Daily Mail when she suggested that direct regulation route would breach the Human Rights Act... the same Daily Mail which regularly calls for the abolition of this piece of legislation.
Private Eye editor Ian Hislop claimed that all or most of the behaviour exposed in the hacking scandal was illegal in any case, implying that no more needs to be done than enforcing existing laws. In the privileged world he inhabits, Hislop doesn’t trouble himself with an account of why this hasn’t generally happened. He need do little more than ask why a couple like the parents of Milly Dowler didn’t just take out a writ against News Corporation and do legal battle with as equals before the law? All of us, as has often been pointed out, are free to eat at the Ritz.
The big question, however, is avoided by Leveson and all political parties. Only the NUJ, who broadly welcome Leveson, express disappointment that the report has nothing to say about ownership and diversity.
They are right. The real limitation on freedom of the press is that wealthy individuals or huge corporate interests own practically all newspapers. Even where the ownership is more independent there is a dependence on corporate advertising.
Regulation, even the beefed-up Leveson version, leaves untouched the control of information and news by a tiny self-interested minority in society. That minority itself needs regulation that ensures they have fairly accurate and reliable hard information about the world they rule.
But they need only as much as serves that end. What they absolutely don’t want is a press that questions that world and their right to rule it. The workers movement does need the ability to hold the likes of Murdoch and the Daily Mail to account for their lies and smears.
More than that, though, we should campaign for plurality and democracy in the ownership and control of the printed media. Without that all talk of press freedom is relative and hollowed out.