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2012 REVIEW: LEVESON INQUIRY

British journalism's annus horribilis can be traced to a fateful day last year.

Lord Justice Leveson
Lord Justice Leveson

On July 5, 2011, The Guardian broke the story of how the News Of The World hacked into the voicemails of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

The revelation was the catalyst for a series of seismic events that dominated the news agenda in 2012. The "Screws" closed days after the Dowler hacking story broke. News Corp, the ultimate owner of the now-defunct title, later withdrew its bid to take over BSkyB, and David Cameron set up a judicial inquiry into what he described as "frankly disgraceful" practices.

And while one section of the inquiry – to be led by Sir Brian Leveson – would focus on the "extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International", there was also to be an examination of the "culture, practices and ethics" of the press in general.

Such a broadening was the UK Government's pivotal decision in setting up the inquiry. Due to the moveable feast of arrests relating to alleged phone hacking and misconduct by reporters, Leveson had to shelve the part of his probe that related directly to News International.

This was perhaps inevitable. By December this year, dozens of former or current News International journalists and executives had been arrested over allegations of criminal misconduct.

The list included former Screws editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, who was arrested after resigning as the UK Government's director of communications, former News Of The World managing editor Stuart Kuttner, and the tabloid's one-time executive editor, Neil Wallis.

However, dropping a key part of the inquiry meant that the original trigger for the investigation – alleged criminal behaviour at one tabloid newspaper – was effectively replaced by a full-blown review of the "culture, practices and ethics" of journalists.

The Leveson inquiry had moved from News International to "the press", and from a probe caused by illegal behaviour to one looking at ethics and regulation.

The judge's inquiry – spanning 337 witnesses and 300 statements – shone an unforgiving spotlight on an entire industry. The British public, far from simply learning more about the extent of phone hacking, witnessed a travelling circus of celebrities, politicians and citizens complaining about their inhumane treatment by the press

Singer Charlotte Church claimed the News Of The World had, in 2005, promised not to print details of her father's private life if her mother agreed to an interview about her suicide attempt, while former motor racing boss Max Mosley spoke of tabloid intrusion into his sex life in 2008.

The appalling treatment of Christopher Jefferies during the police investigation into the murder of Jo Yeates was also pored over.

Rather than the focus being on law-breaking, the discontented now had a platform to complain about the size of corrections, the intrusiveness of paparazzi, and whether newspapers should be compelled to notify an individual before a story is published. The whole press was in the dock.

Leveson's findings reflected the weight of evidence to which he and his advisers listened over nine months.

The judged attacked the maligned Press Complaints Commission – the self-regulatory body tasked with adjudicating on complaints against newspapers – as not fit for purpose, and proposed the creation of a new watchdog controversially underpinned by statute.

New restrictions, such as on data protection and police whistleblowing, were also proposed.

However, it would be wise to take a step back and judge the inquiry's key recommendations against the problems that sparked the investigation. One tabloid, the News Of The World, hired private detectives to use a range of illegal techniques to obtain private information. The methods, mostly revealed by The Guardian, betrayed a deep-seated cultural problem at News International.

Despite various exposés, the Metropolitan Police initially failed to carry out a thorough probe into the allegations and failed to warn suspected hacking victims. The Met, as has been proven beyond doubt, was unhealthily close to News International at the time when the allegations were being aired.

In other words, the key failing was not the regulatory framework of the press; rather, it was the failure by the country's major police force to carry out a proper investigation into activities that were already illegal.

The spider-like reach of News International also extended to the two main political parties in the UK, whose leaders regularly bent over backwards to appease the Murdoch press. These close links became farcical when Cameron confirmed he had ridden a horse loaned to Rebekah Brooks by the Metropolitan Police.

Despite the reams of evidence on News International's influence over the Met and successive governments, Leveson's findings in these areas were wishy-washy.

On the Met, the judge gently suggested some of the decision-making during the phone hacking investigations was "insufficiently thought through" and "unduly defensive".

He tempered this mild criticism by saying there was "no evidence to suggest that anyone was influenced either directly or indirectly in the conduct of the investigation by any fear or wish for favour from News International".

Whereas Leveson proposed legislative restrictions for journalists, police were urged to decide whether their future actions would continue to pass a "blush test". And despite widespread concerns about the effect one newspaper group had on public life, Leveson devoted just six paragraphs in his executive summary to media "plurality".

The end result is that "the press" has been left with a handful of carrots and a basket of sticks.

On the plus side, no sane person will miss the PCC, an old boy's club that commands little respect.

Leveson's proposal for an arbitration system to look at resolving disputes is also to be welcomed.

However, the recommendations affecting reporters carry the danger of restricting legitimate journalistic enquiry.

In 2003, BBC journalist Mark Daly went undercover to expose racism in the ranks of the Greater Manchester police.

But according to the Leveson report, police whistleblowing to the press should be reduced by providing officers with more options to complain internally.

The potential negative effects of this procedure are obvious: if complaints are kept in-house, bad practice could be swept under the carpet and, crucially for police chiefs, kept out of newsrooms.

Similarly, journalists currently enjoy exemptions from the Data Protection Act 1998, legislation that allows individuals to request information held on them by organisations. Leveson has proposed watering down the exemption for reporters, which would make it much easier for an aggrieved politician or public figure to find out what information, if any, a newspaper holds on them.

Recent Daily Telegraph revelations should also be taken as a warning about the dangers of a law to "underpin" a new press regulator.

When a reporter for that newspaper approached the special adviser of Culture Secretary Maria Miller – the minister in charge of considering the Leveson report – about a story relating to her second-home expenses, the aide reportedly said: "Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors' meetings around Leveson at the moment. So I am just going to kind of flag up that connection for you to think about."

A Downing Street spin doctor then reportedly told the newspaper that any article may be poorly timed, as "she [Miller] is looking at Leveson at the moment". Miller has denied any link between her role considering the Leveson report and an investigation into her expenses.

New legal restrictions would also add another layer to the raft of existing laws that inhibit journalism, such as on defamation and the creeping privacy law that allows wealthy litigants to take out superinjunctions.

The prospect of a legal "underpinning" for Scottish newspapers only raised its head following the publication of the Leveson report.

First Minister Alex Salmond argued that the distinctiveness of Scots law meant a separate press regulator should be set up by Holyrood.

However, this prospect appears to have dimmed, with a source close to Salmond telling the Sunday Herald that a Scottish watchdog was not a "red line issue" for him.

Even so, the direction of travel is clear: the public, as well as politicians, want curbs on newspapers, so change is inevitable.

But the campaigners who insist their support for legislative restrictions is balanced by respect for a "free press" should be careful what they wish for. There is a fine line between regulation and overkill.

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