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A Wider Reach from the Leveson Inquiry?

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The Leveson Inquiry appears to be becoming much more than the tabloid press may have originally envisaged. The evidence and testimony thus far is compelling if not concerning. The testimony of people such as the McCanns, Hugh Grand and Alistair Campbell highlight not merely the scandal surrounding phone hacking for certain publications.

The point is made by Alistair Campbell that there are bigger issues and trends concerning the media generally, in particular the press media. One of these concerns is the view that there has been an increasing dumbing down of press and media reporting. There has been a wide downward spiral in quality. The dividing line between traditional journalistic reporting and other media forms, such as entertainment are being eroded. A number of times the simultaneous speed of 24 X 7 news, and rolling news stories, has also been stressed to the Inquiry.

A further theme is the issue of internet "reporting" by legitimate news organisations and new social media. In fact, this new issue has been described by the chairman of the Inquiry as "the elephant in the room."

Understandably perhaps, tabloids may have originally felt the Inquiry might be limited to a neat phone hacking issue. However, increasing testimony and indeed the terms of reference of the Inquiry, make clear that the Inquiry is having to focus on much wider and more far reaching issues than phone hacking by one or so individuals/organisations.

The effectiveness of self regulation and the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) are being called into question. It is hard to resist the conclusion even at this stage, that regulatory press practice changes are inevitable.

However, might there be other less anticipated consequences?

The focus has been on the wider issues of press conflict, practice and how to fairly regulate same. Further regulation appears increasingly likely. This question is how much and in what form.

Yet there may be other less direct consequences. The Inquiry is important and far reaching. It is arguably the most important press related review in 30 years. Given the gravity of the Inquiry and the fact that issues of conduct of the wider media, standards, media practices, dividing lines between news and other content and formats are also being highlighted, we might consider other potential fallout.

Prior to the Inquiry the issue of Twitter in courtrooms and its permissibility was arguably gaining traction. There were already examples of Twitter in UK courts. However, a judicial investigation was announced which may have resulted in the control and regulation of such access, or alternatively rule it out.

Ostensibly, the argument and present consideration relates to contemporary text based reporting of court proceedings. The consultation is officially entitled Consultation on Live, Text-Based Communications from Court.

It is suggested now that given the import of the Leveson Inquiry, and the general media, press, standards, practice, and disintegration of traditional lines between content and reporting formats, it may be wiser to see what results from the Inquiry. Might this be seen as a more cautious approach? After all, the issue and value of media and press reporting generally, which includes legal and court reporting, might well be encompassed within or otherwise impacted by any Leveson Inquiry recommendations. The significance and indeed difficulty of dealing with internet press and reporting is acknowledged as "the elephant in the room." While this is in and of itself a difficult consideration facing the Inquiry, the use of technology, including Twitter, in the courtroom for reporting purposes is no less a difficult issue for our courts to deal with.

As just one example of the difficult issues facing the Consultation on Live, Text-Based Communications from Court, how might we distinguish between traditional press and news organisations, new legitimate online media, less formal and considered online media, individual bloggers (and legal bloggers known as blawgers), and individual members of the public who want to use smartphones in court. This is a complex issue to deal with.

A separate issue which may be inadvertently affected by the Leveson Inquiry is television courtroom broadcasting. David Cameron and Kenneth Clarke have each promoted the expansion of television courtroom broadcasting to appeal hearings and or sentencing hearings. Notwithstanding the differences between these, and that no formal details of the proposal have yet been released, many complex issues remain to be decided. Given that there are many different types of courtroom broadcasting, and potentially many different effects, again caution may be preferred pending the results of the Leveson Inquiry.

Frequently, increased educational effects and increased confidence effects are used as arguments by those promoting courtroom broadcasting. Indeed, this is the case with the current UK proposal. Of course, these effects are not established by any body of empirical research anywhere else. However, again adopting a cautious approach, it may be that the many different and complex television courtroom broadcasting reporting issues, such as educational versus entertainment effects, media practice, media production, media selection, etc. may again lean towards a wait and see approach. It may be deemed useful to await the Leveson Inquiry report on the cross over issues relevant to television courtroom broadcasting before proceeding further.

While Twitter and camera issues are stand alone separate issues, given the inevitable media and press reporting crossovers, we might see some otherwise unanticipated abundance of caution breaking out, pending the results of the Leveson Inquiry.

Paul Lambert, lecturer, solicitor and author of:
Courting Publicity: Twitter and Television Cameras in Court (Bloomsbury).