Leveson’s witnesses: asking old questions in a new era

I’ve been looking at the first two seminars held by the Leveson inquiry into press conduct and regulation before attending the third of these this week. Given that this inquiry is going to last for at least a year and (probably) set a regulatory framework for years to come, the most puzzling aspect of what the inquiry has been told so far lies in the frame of reference adopted by most speakers.

Most of those who have spoken so far have made only passing reference (if any reference at all) to the fact that “the press” is no longer only in print. The fact that journalism is gradually going digital seems to me to have large implications for the legal or regulatory context in which it happens. This suggests that the frame of reference for thinking about regulation needs shifting.

Journalism’s first era was enabled and defined by machinery: the capital-intensive technology of printing and broadcasting. Journalists were easy to identify because they used these platforms. The era we are now entering does not have that handy definition. Anyone with access to a smartphone can now publish; anyone can now claim to be a journalist. For now, the established powers of mainstream journalism dominate the media landscape and set the agenda; estimates differ, but in Britain somewhere between 7% and 10% of people get their news first and foremost from the internet. But this may well change and likely will.

It’s surely very difficult to determine ways of preventing misconduct in journalism without being clear about what journalism actually is and what it does (if anything) that makes it distinctive. News is no longer a self-defining industrial activity. Journalism is one (very important) activity on a spectrum of social communications transformed by digital technology. Journalism has decoupled from the printing technology which founded the idea in the first place. Any question of whether journalism deserves particular treatment under the law must start with what journalism actually does that makes it particular.

There wouldn’t be much disagreement that journalism is what is because it is independent of the state. Many would say that it should operate in the public interest, but there are competing versions of what that means in practice. I once identified four functions that seemed to me to be (a) useful to society and (b) were done the very best way by people trained and practised at doing them. If society allows space for this quartet of functions to happen, democracy should be healthier than it would be if they weren’t happening. The four bits of journalism’s “core”, if you like, are:

  •  Verification
  • Sense-making
  • Eye-witness
  • Investigation

(There’s a longer version of this argument here). If a newspaper, magazine or website is claiming to do these things, it ought to be possible to judge whether or not they are being done to known standards. That strikes me as the best way of getting round the considerable conceptual problems of trying to define the public interest. My point here is less to impose my laundry list of journalism’s functions than to suggest that focussing the discussion there is more profitable for the Leveson inquiry than worrying about regulation mechanics.





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