Steve BarnettLord Justice Leveson’s recommendations for press regulation were both clever and moderate, writes Steven Barnett. They were met with a press campaign of deliberate obfuscation and downright lies. In this post he reminds us of the reasons for the Leveson inquiry and where the process towards press regulation stands now, urging Parliament to hold its nerve and curb abuses of corporate media power.

It has been, by any interpretation, an extraordinary achievement. We have yet to see how the new framework for press self-regulation will play out once the cross-party Royal Charter has been finally agreed by the Privy Council sub-committee. There are plenty of obstacles to a satisfactory conclusion, and – with the major publishers threatening a boycott – it is not impossible that nothing will happen. But an all-party agreement built around a Royal Charter which could, for the first time, provide a mechanism for effective, independent and enduring self-regulation of the press is a hugely important landmark in British public life. It is the first time for generations that Parliament has collectively had the courage to stand up not just to the corporate might of some very powerful media enterprises, but to the collective and carefully orchestrated hysteria of a press campaign built—at best disingenuously and at worst dishonestly—around spurious arguments that 300 years of press freedom was being systematically dismantled.

The background to Leveson

It is too easy to forget the litany of outrageous press abuses that were exposed during the Leveson hearings. Memories fade easily, abetted by the press’ constant self-serving reminders of some of their lesser transgressions focused on celebrities such as Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller and Charlotte Church. Attention will focus over the next few weeks on criminal activity, but even without the phone hacking the Leveson Inquiry uncovered irrefutable evidence of callous, brutal and ruthless behaviour conducted in the name of journalism.

We should therefore remember the McCanns who, within a few weeks of their daughter being abducted in Portugal, were subjected to Daily Express headlines alleging that they had sold their daughter for money. Equally appalling were the sensationalised front-page allegations in virtually every tabloid newspaper which portrayed Christopher Jefferies as a weird and eccentric suspect capable of murdering Joanna Yeates. There was J. K. Rowling’s description of how a journalist had used her five-year-old daughter’s schoolbag to smuggle a letter to her, and Sheryl Gascoigne’s list of distortions and exaggerations evidently designed to be hurtful.

Then there were the unforgiveable intrusions into personal grief. Sheila Hollins, the eminent psychiatrist and cross-bench peer, gave evidence about the grotesque activities of journalists when her daughter Abigail Witchells was stabbed in the neck in 2005 and paralysed: reporters had to be ejected from her daughter’s front garden, from the waiting room of the hospital where she was recovering, from the house of her terminally ill mother-in-law, where they were demanding a photo of her daughter, and from her grandson’s school sports day. Much more recently, even as the inquiry was in progress in March 2012, newspapers published photos of the grieving 9-year-old sister of Sebastian Bowles, the 11-year-old boy who was one of 28 killed in a coach crash in Switzerland, along with family photographs lifted without permission from their father’s Facebook site.

In short, Leveson exposed abundant evidence of amoral, corrosive and in some cases corrupt practices in some of our papers’ newsrooms in pursuit of stories with no conceivable public interest and which, in his own words, ‘wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people’. It was his job to find an effective, long-term solution.

Leveson’s proposals

His recommendations were both clever and moderate. They were met with a press campaign of deliberate obfuscation and downright lies which prayed in aid the likes of Putin, Stalin and Mugabe to illustrate this purported assault on ‘300 years of press freedom’.

Let’s rehearse the framework for voluntary, independent self-regulation which he did in fact propose, and which was—with some minor modifications—adopted with overwhelming majorities in both Houses of Parliament:

According to the system approved by Parliament, news organisations are being asked to come forward with their own systems of self-regulation, which must have three crucial ingredients: a Board which is genuinely and demonstrably independent of influence either from the industry or from politicians; a speedy complaints process for complainants along with an arbitral arm as an alternative to expensive litigation in the courts; and a Code of Conduct which will spell out the boundaries of what is acceptable—just as the Press Complaints Commission code does now—but which, crucially, will include ordinary working journalists rather than being controlled entirely by editors. It will also define public interest exceptions to breaches of the Code rather than leaving them – as now—vague and inchoate.

To ensure that there is no backsliding from these commitments and that the industry does not attempt to wrest control of this independent self-regulator, its effectiveness and its independence will be overseen by a wholly independent Recognition Panel. Appointments to this panel will be governed by a transparent mechanism, again designed to guarantee independence from both the press and politicians. The Panel will ensure, both at the beginning of the process and regularly every two or three years, that the self-regulator is sticking to the requirements for recognition, including those on independence, complaints, arbitration and the Code of Conduct to which it committed.

Both the process of appointments to a Recognition Panel and the criteria for recognition of an industry self-regulator were embedded in a Royal Charter passed by Parliament after cross-party agreement. The final part of the regulatory jigsaw was a package of incentives designed to encourage publishers to put together a self-regulator which complies with the Recognition Panel criteria. These were included in the Crime and Courts Act which received Royal Assent on 25 April, and allow significant benefits for those inside a recognised regulator through protection against court costs and exemptions from exemplary damages. In other words, no publication is required to join a recognised regulator, but those which do will find it commercially beneficial.

At the heart of these proposals are two related and fundamental principles which belie the manufactured outrage with which they have been greeted by powerful press corporations. First, it is an entirely post-hoc system: there are no censorship tsars looking over the shoulders of journalists or editors. Any complaints, objections, representations or claims of mistreatment or unfairness are dealt with entirely on a post-publication basis, according to rules drawn up by the industry itself.

Second, the whole regulatory apparatus is designed to ensure that while content is not subject to scrutiny by any external body or institution, there is proper accountability for the self-regulatory process, to ensure that— unlike the discredited PCC—there are no relapses by the self-regulator. This distinction has been articulately laid out by the Cambridge philosopher Onora O’Neill, who has argued that we should not confuse individual self-expression with the speech of dominant organisations: ‘the communication of the powerful can shape and influence, improve and damage others’ lives, and in democracies we have long since taken steps to regulate the communication of most powerful organisations’.

Baroness O’Neill drew a crucial distinction between regulating media content, which was not acceptable, and regulating media process, which was both acceptable and desirable as a means of ensuring transparency for audiences as well as accountability of the powerful.2 Therein lies the philosophical bedrock of Leveson’s proposals: regulating the process by which fairness, accuracy, respect for privacy, and redress for journalistic malpractice are properly implemented by newspapers themselves need entail no constraint on freedom to publish.

Anyone reading our national press in the months since Leveson reported would have had little understanding of his proposals or their underlying rationale. With very few exceptions, led by the powerful triumvirate of News International, Associated Newspapers and the Telegraph Group, our newspapers have indulged in a litany of obfuscation, distortion, personal vendettas and exaggerated concerns about the potential impact of these proposals. There has been no pretence of fair-mindedness or proper journalistic enquiry. As the great former Sunday Times editor Sir Harry Evans said in his Cudlipp lecture in January this year: ‘The misrepresentation of Leveson’s main proposal is staggering. To portray his careful construct for statutory underpinning as state control is a gross distortion’.3 It will come as no surprise that despite his towering reputation in journalism, Evans’ comments were reported in precisely one newspaper: The Guardian. The hysteria following all-party agreement on the Royal Charter took those distortions to a different level. In a completely unreported speech in Dublin in March, Labour peer David Puttnam described the coverage as ‘straight out of the Joseph Goebbels propaganda rulebook’.4

Where are we now?

Once passed through Parliament, it remained only for the Royal Charter to be agreed by the Privy Council. Given the arcane rules which govern this quintessentially British procedure, this should have been a simple process of a few ministers standing around with the Queen and giving it a cursory nod. It was clear, however, that the press was not prepared to accept the will of Parliament. The industry has, in the intervening weeks, pursued four strategies.

First, on 25 April, it produced its own version of a Royal Charter which it insisted had also to be given due consideration by the Privy Council. It was clearly a tactical manoeuvre to delay Parliament’s Charter, because its proposals were even further removed from Leveson than its February iteration. On 8 October, after a long period of consultation and deliberation, a specially convened sub-committee of the Privy Council rejected the press Charter.

Second, the press has pursued an almost relentless campaign of vilification against any individual or organisation who had dared to support Parliament’s charter and Leveson’s recommendations.

Third, the press has attempted to frame the debate on press regulation in terms of ‘compromise’ and ‘negotiation’ designed to convince doubters (and in particular parliamentary waverers) that the correct approach is to find a midway solution between the two Charters. Thus Hacked Off, and all those who have campaigned for nearly a year to implement Leveson’s moderate and already diluted recommendations are portrayed as inflexible and obdurate.

Fourth, on 8 July, the major news publishers released plans for a new body to replace the PCC, called the ‘Independent Press Standards Organisation’ (IPSO). This initiative was designed to demonstrate that the press really were serious about overhauling the current structure and claimed to be delivering Leveson’s ‘key recommendations’.

Once again, however, close inspection revealed that their proposals left control of the regulatory apparatus in the hands of the main industry players and was little different from the organisation it was designed to replace. There would, for example, be no quick and prominent corrections and apologies for those who have suffered press abuse but—as with the PCC—a lengthy process of mediation, with little guarantee of a fair remedy even if the complaint were upheld.

Now, Parliament must hold its nerve. In the end, this is not about preserving watchdog or independent journalism, which is categorically not under threat. It is about curbing abuses of corporate power in the face of furious opposition from self-interested editors and media barons. For the public, for most working journalists and for the victims of press abuse, we have seen a much-needed and long overdue rebalancing of the British political landscape.

Good journalism—and good journalists—will prosper as a result of renewed public faith and renewed protection for ethical newsroom practices. Parliament must not give up on those it represents, nor on those who have been intimidated, abused or victimised at the hands of an unfettered press. It must demonstrate that it is indeed the sovereign power.

This post is an adapted and updated version of an article in the current Political Quarterly, available here.

Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

About the Author

Steven Barnett is professor of communications at the University of Westminster. s.barnett@wmin.ac.uk. @stevenjbarnett.

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