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Des Freedman

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Leveson: Does the Sentence Fit the Crime?

Posted: 30/11/2012 13:15

Some 16 months after David Cameron set up a public inquiry to examine the culture, practices and ethics of the press, Lord Justice Leveson has delivered his report. It calls for a new form of independent self-regulation with statutory oversight in order to make sure that the press cannot wriggle out of their responsibilities. Cameron, after having promised that he would implement Leveson's recommendations unless they were 'bonkers', immediately declared in Parliament that he was not prepared to pass any legislation that would interfere with his commitment to press freedom. Perhaps the most concise response to this came in a Tweet from Stephen Fry: 'It would seem David Cameron's address is no longer Number 10 Downing Street: it's now Flat 2, Rupert Murdoch's arse.'

Battle lines have long been drawn.

Those commentators who have spent months attempting to undermine the Leveson Inquiry will see nothing in the report that will change their minds. The Sun reacted to the report by arguing that Leveson is advocating 'State control of newspapers' while the Daily Mail described it as 'a mortal threat to the British people's historic right to know'. Max Hastings in the same newspaper called it 'a Rotten Day for Freedom.'

This is hypocrisy of the highest order. What is being challenged here is the freedom to snoop, to tell lies and to evade any form of accountability, not the freedom to hold power to account which was never on trial and which is all too rarely practiced by the most shrill voices for 'press freedom'.

However, we have also seen the whole Leveson process dismissed by radical critics. The broadcaster John Pilger has called it a distraction and a 'club matter' while the academic Richard Keeble argues that it is 'best understood as largely spectacular theatre, too trapped within the system it is attempting to reform to have any lasting effect.' According to the monitoring group Media Lens: 'No-one should expect radical changes to the corporate media following the Leveson Inquiry, yet another instance of established power investigating itself.'

I think that both reactions, in very different ways, do not do justice to the situation.

First, because the recommendations, if implemented, would make a small but significant difference to prospects for a more accountable press. Leveson was absolutely clear in his comments introducing the report that 'there must be change' and he was decisive in rejecting the proprietors' proposed solution for a revamped regulator with no basis in law. That proposal, he argued, 'does not come close' to what is needed to secure effective regulation. An independent regulatory body on which not a single current editor or sitting MP can serve is clearly much better than a Press Complaints Commission dominated by vested interests. There are other potential benefits such as a conscience clause for journalists to prevent them from being sacked if they refuse to write a story that breaks journalistic codes as well as complaints and arbitration systems that are not dominated by the industry. These are all (rather gentle) ways of regulating press power and not of controlling press content.

However, more importantly, those who dismiss Leveson either as a threat to press freedom or as a waste of time, underplay the wider context of the report. Leveson's claim that sections of the press have 'wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people' and have wielded too much power over politicians follows the discovery during the inquiry of systematic corruption, collusion and compliance at the highest levels of the press, police and politics. Public opinion--as demonstrated in several opinion polls showing overwhelming support for independent regulation that is not in the hands of the industry--is streets ahead of most commentators on this fact. Leveson, whether that was his intention or not, shone a bright light into the highest levels of power in this country and has provided a vast amount of evidence to assist the case for radical change to our media and political systems.

Of course there are many issues that are of concern in the report: the lack of any concrete proposals concerning ownership concentration, the absolving of Jeremy Hunt from blame in the BSkyB takeover bid, the continuing faith in the 'integrity of the police' despite evidence presented to the Inquiry and data protection issues that may make it harder for journalists to protect sources and investigate wrongdoing. But the question is: are prospects for press reform enhanced by Leveson's recommendations or not? I believe they are.

It is true that the Leveson Inquiry was about the establishment holding a mirror up to itself. That fact alone does not make it irrelevant or impotent. But it does mean that without broadening our perspective to look at the problem of press power systemically, we will never get the media we want or need. This is not a question of simply finding the perfect regulatory model but of dealing with the structural forces--of the desire for political influence, higher ratings and exclusives at all costs--which give rise to sensationalist, unethical and distorted reporting in the first place.

We need far more than the Leveson Report is ever likely to give us: ownership caps to break up giant concentrations of media power, a call for unionisation to protect the rights of journalists, and more democratic forms of governance to take control away from all-conquering proprietors. However, simply to dismiss the Leveson Report because it doesn't come up with all the answers (let alone ask the right questions) is to miss the huge opportunities that have been thrown up by its expose of how powerful interests operate in this country.

The sentence may not fit the crime but there is still a long way to go in seeking justice.

 

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