Leveson quick read: severe narrative, law/regulation better than feared

This is a rapid gut and comment on the Leveson report executive summary released today. The complexity of his regulation-legislation solution seems to have masked the genuine severity of his audit of what some newspapers have been doing.

No report on the press would be complete without a quotation from Thomas Jefferson and Lord Justice Leveson obliges on page 4: “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.” The next fifteen pages demonstrate exactly the opposite.

Leveson does not think much of the “culture” of the press (as his terms of reference called it). Indeed it seems unlikely that he would even think the word “culture” the appropriate one. He is outraged not just by bad behaviour but by what he seems to think was a lack of any moral sense: “There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as it its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist.” Note the “which it wrote” dig at hypocrisy. (para 7)

He makes a nod to the fact that the press does hold its own powers to account, citing (para 10) both the Guardian’s investigation of the News of the World and the ITV and BBC Panorama’s investigation of Jimmy Savile. He acknowledges (para 18) that commercial changes have increased pressures on newspapers “to find different ways to add value” (without accepting this as an excuse for anything at all).

Leveson is particularly severe on the press’s failure to inquire into phone-hacking when it was first revealed in 2006. “…the press did nothing to investigate itself or to expose conduct which, if it had involved the Government, Parliament, any other national institution…, would have been the subject of the most intense spotlight that journalists could bring to bear on it.” (para 23) That hypocrisy theme again.

Phone-hacking was sufficiently widespread to justify a “reconsideration of the corporate governance surrounding the way in which newspapers operate.”. (para 31)

The fact that someone is a celebrity doesn’t licence any invasion of their privacy or that of their families. “Their families, including their children, are pursued and important personal moments are destroyed. Where there is a genuine public interets in what they are doing, that is one thing; too often, there is not.” (para 33)

What went wrong at the News of the World went wider: “a failure of systems of management and compliance.” And in the newsroom: “It was said that the News of the World had “lost its way” in relation to phone-hacking; its casual attitude to privacy and the lip service it paid to consent demonstrated a far more general loss of direction.” (para 36) I would translate this as Leveson’s message to Rupert Murdoch: please don’t tell me that phone-hacking was a surprising aberration or a one-off – it was wired into the culture.

Law and regulation

Leveson is also rough with the Press Complaints Commission: “proved itself to be aligned with the interests of the press”…”not monitored press compliance with the Code “…the statistics which it has published lack transparency.” (paras 44-6)

Leveson then proposes a new independent regulator, less open to influence by editors and publishers that would both promote high standards and run a fast arbitration system. Papers reluctant to either join or pay for this new body would face financial penalties in court cases. To “give effect the incentives I have outlined”, the new system would have to recognised and validated in a new law. If the industry fails “to rise to this challenge” then Ofcom, the broadcast and telecom regulator, would step in as a backstop.The summary I’ve read does not make clear who is going to judge whether the challenge has been met or how this decision will be made.

I’ve argued here more than once that it would be better to do this without legislation. But is fair to say that these proposals are probably the least worst version of “statutory underpinning”. Now the political battle begins.

 

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