The Elephant in Lord Leveson's Room

The question senior media executives should have asked themselves, as they listened to the shocking evidence from the family of Milly Dowler to the Leveson inquiry yesterday, was not just how did it come to this, but, why didn't we act sooner?

The question senior media executives should have asked themselves as they listened to the shocking evidence from the family of Milly Dowler to the Leveson inquiry yesterday, was not just how did it come to this, but, why didn't we act sooner?

The elephant in the room at the inquiry hearings is Operation Motorman, and the report it led to being published by the Information Commissioner in 2006 - What Price Privacy.

This report suggested that 305 journalists from across the UK press could have been among the customers of private investigators illegally obtaining personal and confidential information.

The report also suggested that the newspapers who had the three largest numbers of transactions positively identified were, the Daily Mail, the Sunday People and the Daily Mirror.

So I think that Hugh Grant was right to assert before Lord Leveson yesterday, that one of the myths that could be bust by this inquiry is that this was exclusively the preserve of the News of the World - accepting of course that journalists on that paper were guilty of serious wrong doing.

The challenge for media owners and regulators, is to answer for what they did in response to these reports and the sentencing in 2007 of the private investigator Glen Mulcaire and the News of the World's Royal Editor, Clive Goodman.

What checks did they put in place to see if people in their own newsrooms had obtained illegally sourced information? What review was there of their policies for the use and payment of private investigators?

The Murdochs and senior executives from News International have been put through a very public process of examination for their reaction to this crisis. This has revealed that despite the public assurances given over the last few years, they never did in fact conduct a rigorous internal inquiry into the use and acquisition of private and confidential information.

It has also shown that at least three years ago, senior executives were aware that - according to the advice they were given by their lawyers - "there is a powerful case that there is (or was) a culture of illegal information access used at NGN in order to produce stories for publication."

The Press Complaints Commission will come in for its regular shellacking for its failure to make self regulation work for the media.

Robert Jay QC, the counsel for the Leveson inquiry, has already stated that its powers are extremely limited because there is "no sanction for disobeying its rulings."

State regulation of the media or the licensing of journalists would be wrong for a country that prides itself on upholding free of speech - there is of course a lot more to being a democracy than holding elections.

At the same time journalists cannot be above the law, nor assert that anything that people might be interested in is by default in the 'public interest'.

Self regulation can work, and I think it does largely in my old industry of advertising.

The Advertising Standards Authority is an independent body. It sets the guidelines for the whole industry without exception (unlike, say, the Daily Express and Daily Star which are not signed up to the PCC) and there are inherent and potentially large financial penalties of falling foul of the regulations.

No advertiser or agency wants to be in the position of seeing an advert that has cost millions of pounds to make, being pulled off air.

James Murdoch made a telling comment when he gave evidence to our committee earlier in the month, which was that "one of the real lessons learned here is to avoid allowing the newsroom to investigate itself."

I think that should be the message for the Leveson inquiry. Yes to self regulation, but it must be independent of the influence of news editors and have real teeth.

We will never devise the perfect code of practise for journalists, but instead editors must genuinely fear the costs and consequences of breaking their newsroom breaking the rules.


What's Hot