After Leveson

This post was contributed by James Brown, from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations, who attended the event ‘After Leveson. What sort of press regulation?‘ on Saturday 20 October 2012.

With one very big media scandal dominating the news agenda, you might be forgiven for forgetting another one currently rumbling away in the background. But the Leveson Enquiry into Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press is due to publish its findings before Christmas, so Saturday was good timing for Birkbeck’s Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life to hold a panel discussion on what the Enquiry has told us – so far.

It’s easy to forget the sheer scale of the Leveson Enquiry: in its eight months of hearings, it took testimonies from 474 witnesses from 135 different organisations, generating over 6,000 pages of evidence. Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see why first panellist, Lance Price, felt that the Enquiry has a “pretty thankless task” in making some sense of the information acquired, and wondered whether the process had been sufficiently well-defined to reach a conclusion. Price has had a pretty good vantage point from which to view how the press and politicians work together. For three years, from 1998–2001, he worked as media advisor to Tony Blair’s government, and later referred to Rupert Murdoch as “the 24th member of the cabinet. On many major decisions his views were taken into account.”

He speculated as to whether the some of the Enquiry’s participants, let alone the public, might be confused by the wealth of information disclosed: “One minute we’re hearing about the ‘industrial level’ of phone hacking … about the fact that the Prime Minister was riding horses with Rebekah Brooks … the next whether it’s in the public interest to know that some of our movie stars once slept with prostitutes … and consider whether Prime Ministers were so scared of the media that even when they were in office, they were unable to challenge it.” By way of illustration, Price recounted a speech about the Tony Blair had given in his last days as Prime Minister, in which he said: “Today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits.”

Lance Price said of Blair’s speech that “at the point at which he really had nothing left to lose, he pulled his punches … he later confessed that he hadn’t said all the things he’d thought about saying … he said nothing whatsoever about News International, didn’t mention the Sun or the Times. Instead he focused on the Independent, probably the least guilty of the sorts of things he was talking about.”

Second panelist, Joan Smith, also had a personal insight into the ethics of the press, having been a victim of phone hacking whilst being married to then Labour minister Denis McShane. In January this year, after receiving an apology and compensation from News International, she wrote:

“It’s easy to joke about phone hacking and think it’s of little consequence. Some people assume that the silent listeners had to sit through dozens of mundane messages about picking up dry-cleaning, but my experience and that of other victims suggests it was much more serious than that. One of the reasons I was so angry was the sickening realisation that strangers had listened to my voicemails in the aftermath of a private tragedy.”

In Saturday’s session, she continued this theme, iterating that, while many people equate the Leveson Enquiry with celebrities having their phones hacked, in many more cases it was less famous people who were at the wrong end of journalists’ sharp practices. Smith recounted the story of Paul Dadge, who was at the centre of one of the most enduring images of the July 7 bombings. A former fire-fighter, he found himself one train behind the bombed carriages caught up at Edgware Road. Once evacuated from the train, he volunteered his triage skills, and was photographed having applied a necessarily rudimentary face-mask to a woman who’d received severe facial burns. His phone was hacked shortly afterwards, for which he successfully sued News International.

Smith said, “People like him never expected to be in the public eye – weren’t  actually in the public eye except for in a horrific terrorist attack that got them dragged into this … What we discovered through the Leveson process was that there was this other kind of journalism where people who don’t really want to be in the media find themselves thrust into the eye of the storm … And when they seek redress, when what’s printed about them in newspapers is fanciful or untrue, the system of regulation doesn’t work.”

The final speaker was Dr Evan Harris, advisor to Hacked Off, the campaign for free and accountable media, who set out what kind of legislation he believes is necessary to balance the freedom the media needs to do its job with the accountability it needs to be held to. He pointed out that hacking is already illegal but that “criminal law is an extremely clumsy way of dealing with people’s behaviour … The fact that there is a legal sanction attached to something does not really discourage you, it’s the likelihood of getting caught.”

But one of the problems in how Leveson’s report might be received could have been foretold in how the scandal was reported when it broke. Harris said: “if this scandal had happened in any other industry, particularly one that’s so important, that the first people, I’m pleased to say, that would have complained would have been the newspapers – saying it’s outrageous that the doctors, the lawyers, the politicians have covered this up … What we learned from the Leveson Enquiry is that the press won’t fairly report an enquiry into their own industry.”

In some ways, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this, because we have been here before. Since World War II, Britain has seen three royal commissions on the press, plus two government inquiries. As Professor Roy Greenslade wrote earlier this year: “On all five occasions, publishers and editors made no attempt to disguise their resentment at the poking of official noses into their affairs. Similarly, by marching behind the banner of press freedom, they resisted, or watered down, each recommendation for regulatory reform.”

And as Lance Price went on to document, the relationship between politicians and the press has always been a complex one. In 1953, Winston Churchill had a stroke  which was hidden from public view when officials persuaded compliant newspaper editors that it wasn’t ‘in the public interest’ for them to know the severity of Churchill’s illness.

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