May 12

Adam Boulton at Leveson: a lapidary exchange on the press


I reproduce without much need for comment a short exchange which occurred in the evidence given yesterday by Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News, to the Leveson Inquiry. Other things which Boulton said may have generated more headline attention, but his clear-headed analysis here is more useful than hundreds of other such dialogues in explaining (while not excusing) the events which gave rise to the Inquiry in the first place. The questions were being put by one of the Inquiry counsel, David Barr, who starts by referrring to Boulton’s evidence statement.

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Apr 12

Leveson: how to avoid the pitfalls of “better mousetrap” press regulation

Towards the end of next month, the Leveson Inquiry into the British press will turn from its current, revelatory phase about media relationships with politicians and address again the knotty question of regulating journalism.

The inquiry’s most basic dilemma hasn’t changed: how to prevent and discourage the wrongs which have occurred without tipping over into state control of the news media. When he has grown bored and irritated with an editor waffling vaguely about how things will be improved by a few light adjustments to the present rules, Lord Leveson usually asks one of two questions and sometimes both: what would you actually do? will what you suggest command public confidence? Next month will bring forth a slew of ideas for regulation designed to work better than the much-abused self-regulation of the past. Legal and media experts are busy putting the finishing touches to better mousetraps.

The problems of “toughening” regulation are much greater than supposed, as I’ve argued here (£). Not least because regulation deals with sorting out things that have already gone wrong. What the Leveson Inquiry should also be concentrating on is how to encourage, in the culture of newsrooms, good practice which lowers the odds that bad things will be done. It should also look at whether the issue of regulation isn’t as much a question of legal process as much as one of regulatory machinery. That is to say that contributory factor in the accumulation of problems and resentment has been the cost and delay of taking legal action over libel or invasion of privacy. In this article I suggest that there is a way to interlock the rules of both law and a regulator to create a powerful incentive for journalism to rely less on tricks and illegalities.

If journalists were offered fuller and more consistent public interest defences in both criminal and civil law, those defences could be made available only to news publishers or broadcasters who could demonstrate transparent and enforceable editorial integrity and standards. With that incentive, websites and papers (broadcasters are separately regulated) would need to organise regulation among themselves which would show that they deserved the protection of a public interest defence. Trivial, sloppy or bad journalism which can’t claim a public interest justification gets no protection; better journalism at least has that line of defence available. That strikes me as the best way round the knotty dilemma: incentives not state-backed regulation.

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Jan 12

Ed Milliband, Jon Stewart and Richard Clive Desmond: the humor crisis

I was going to write about the use of jokes in politics and how political reporters never cover the subject for fear of sounding trivial. But then jokes suddenly starting happening everywhere.

The leader of Britain’s parliamentary opposition, Ed Milliband, made one of those doomed “relaunch” speeches last week which no one outside the political industry much noticed. An interview that morning intended to set the stage for the speech went awry when Milliband found himself being asked if he was too ugly ever to be elected Prime Minister.

Milliband’s looks may or may not be a liability but he has bigger problems. He never seems to find anything funny and never makes any jokes anyone can remember and retell. Plenty of leading politicians are born without a sense of humour, but the smart ones have that corrected. Margaret Thatcher wasn’t naturally hilarious and had to have jokes explained to her. But she had a speechwriter (the theatre director Ronnie Millar) who was funny and who, as someone reminded me the other night, carried a small notebook everywhere in which he recorded lines that he could use.

Milliband shares this humour-deficit with the strange collection of people currently slugging it out (“mud-wrestling for dwarfs” one commentator called it) for the Republican presidential nomination in the US. John Dickerson of Slate reflects here the Great Republican Humour Crisis and on what the presence or absence of gags tells you about politicos. And his piece has jokes. My favourite is the self-deprecating story told by a now-forgotten man called Mo Udall. Canvassing, Udall walks into a barber’s shop and introduces himself as the local candidate who’s asking for their votes. “Yeah,” replies the barber, “We were just laughing about that.”

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Jan 12

The perplexing paradoxes of popular journalism

The first phase of the Leveson inquiry in the British press isn’t quite finished yet, but the inquiry is entering new territory. Or at least there’s a change of mood.

The opening weeks were dominated by complaints and horror stories about red-top reporters. Straws passing on the wind tell me that this indignation is now being replaced by more sober reflection about the issues which face big-circulation papers.

Daily Mail February 1997

Here are the straws I’ve counted recently. Lord Leveson himself has from the start been keen to underline that he is not embarking on any project to “beat down” popular papers. He has also been asking each of his celebrity witnesses what they would do about the faults of which they complain and has more than once sounded a little irritated by the vagueness of the prescriptions he is offered. When editors take the stand at Leveson this month, we will be reminded that popular journalism can reveal important truths and explain complex events in ways that papers with bigger reputations and much smaller circulations can’t manage. Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian, at one time a columnist for the Daily Mirror, wrote a defence of the tabloids the other day.

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