Sep 12

The Leveson Inquiry pre-positioning: editors a bit confused

The printing of naked photos of Prince Harry by The Sun exposed nothing very interesting about the prince but it did dislodge some very muddled thinking about the future of newspapers.

The short-term future for newspaper editors is dominated by the Leveson Inquiry, due to report in the autumn. The Inquiry’s chairman has been sending provisional summaries of his views to editors and they don’t like what they read, claiming that it hints at statute-backed press regulation. The government sounds wary. The opposition Labour Party is sitting on the fence on that issue, preparing to jump off on whatever side will cause the government most trouble, while keeping as much attention as they can muster on the issue of media plurality and ownership. These are all pre-publication manoeuvres. Nobody yet knows what Leveson thinks and positions will be amended or even abandoned when his views become clear.

The Prince Harry pictures gave editors a chance to rehearse their defences, which came in two varieties. The first is a broad press freedom argument which asks for licence to disclose anything which they deem interesting and which is within the law (and maybe a few things which aren’t). As a defence in court – prosecutions of News of the World journalists for phone-hacking and related offences are churning through the system in parallel to the Leveson Inquiry – this is unlikely to work (see this from the HuffPo by one of those arrested). We might christen this the “spacious elbow room” argument; popular papers need space to do what they do and to survive. A tincture of anti-establishment language is usually thrown in. Hence the ex-editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie:

“I’m unsure why the establishment hate newspapers so much but what I’d like to see is editors get off their knees and start pushing back against these curtailments in what will eventually, I promise you, lead to the closure of newspapers”.

Continue reading →


Jan 12

A Leveson question for Paul Dacre

There are many things the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Mail Paul Dacre no doubt wants to say to the Leveson Inquiry when he appears before it on February 6th and plenty of questions lined up by the Inquiry’s lawyers. I have a small suggestion.

The elusive and much-disputed idea of the “public interest” will play an important part in Leveson’s deliberations. Public interest defences – such as exceptional justifications for intrusion, for example – are written into the Press Complaints Commission’s code of conduct and into several laws. Back in the middle of last year, public interest was an important issue in one of the cases which triggered several public rows and court cases over privacy injunctions.

One of these cases involved Sir Fred Goodwin, the disgraced ex-head of the Royal Bank of Scotland. While in charge of the bank, Goodwin had had an affair with a female colleague. Injunctions were granted to prevent the disclosure of the names of either party. Despite the injunction, Goodwin’s name was freely bandied about on Twitter and he was named in the House of Commons by an MP. A judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat, eventually cancelled the order concealing Goodwin’s identity but kept in place the one preventing the naming of his lover.

The Daily Mail did not approve of the judge’s decision, running as many details (“the mistress on a six-figure salary”) about the woman as it thought it could get away with. Or so it appeared. A number of different court hearings were held on this case and this is the judgement covering what the Mail had said. It repays careful reading.

Continue reading →


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.

Continue reading →


Oct 11

Leveson and media regulation: the Dacre surprise

In the wake of the phone-hacking scandal in Britain, a judge-led inquiry is now sitting to look at a series of questions about media regulation, some of them related to hacking and some not. To allow the media industry an early opportunity to vent its feelings about the inquiry, Lord Justice Leveson organised three seminars as an overture to the inquiry’s evidence sessions.

Because the seminars were principally about letting off steam, the speakers with the strongest feelings and language naturally made the headlines. But the third seminar witnessed a retreat which has moved the goalposts.

The long-serving editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, railed against the inquiry, which he sees as no more than revenge by MPs for the exposure of the expenses scams. So far so predictable. Then, in his closing words, Dacre effectively conceded that the existing system of self-regulation was not good enough and might have to be strengthened. Quite considerably strengthened, as it turned out. Dacre’s performance was the rhetorical equivalent of an army which fires at great deal of ammunition at its enemy, creating noise and smoke. Only when the smoke clears for a moment does it become clear that the forces making all the noise have actually retreated.

Dacre announced that the Mail would be carrying a corrections column on its second page as of next week. He said that the Press Complaints Commission’s “code committee” (i.e. the rule-writers) should have lay members and not be composed solely of editors. He even suggested that this committee might take part in public consultations. He floated the idea that newspapers might need to appoint an “ombudsman” (perhaps a retired judge advised by a couple of retired editors) to inquire into “potential press scandals”. This figure should have the power to summon witnesses and to name the guilty. It might levy fines and on the “polluter pays” principle, the newspapers should carry the costs of such inquiries. Dacre implied that this newly-empowered ombudsman would exist alongside the PCC, but their exact relationship was left vague. (Complete Leveson inquiry video and transcripts here).

Continue reading →