I would not normally concern myself too much with the sleeping patterns of the editor of The Guardian, but judging by his editorial on the upcoming Leveson Report, I sense a lot of tossing and turning has been going on. Apologies for not providing a link, but I am having a technologically challenged morning, so instead I have cut and pasted and put the editorial at the bottom of this blog.
The Guardian, and in particular reporter Nick Davies and editor Alan Rusbridger who gave him the time, resources and support to pursue a story that other media, politicians and police preferred to will away, must rank among the heroes of the story which has brought us to the point where Leveson is about to report, and hopefully make recommendations which will lead to a change in the media culture which has been exposed.
But there is enough in the editorial below to suggest Rusbridger will end up on the side of the villains who can claim the largest share of responsibility for creating the culture in the first place. That may sound harsh, but I worry a little when I read words from the pen of The Guardian editor, giving credence to the plans of Lord Black, one of the long line of failed heads of the failed Press Complaints Commission, still working away for the press interests to whom he owes so much to be granted just one more, final, absolutely last time honest your Honour, booze up in the last chance saloon.
When the Rusbridger editorial points out that the Black proposals have ‘widespread support among the press’, we should be immediately suspicious. The press is a major vested interest. If they support a particular plan, it is because that plan suits their interest, not the public interest, and I think we have seen enough at Leveson to know that the media interest is often not the same thing as the public interest.
The difference with other major vested interests is that the press can act as player and spectator in the media game. The largely one-sided framing of the debate right now is a major part of that, owners and editors using their papers to seek to influence the judge, public opinion and the politicians who will have to rule upon whatever the judge brings forward, not least by constant suggestion that any role for Parliament is tantamount to an end to press freedom. Yet even the useless PCC had to be set up by Parliament.
Another interesting example has been the poll recently carried out showing overwhelming public support for the kind of tough and statutory regulation that the press falsely claim would amount to a huge curb on their freedoms. If you have seen any reference to this poll in the newspages of newspapers which love to claim they speak for and represent their readers’ interests, then you have read more papers than I have. Barely a day goes by without newspapers using polls to fill space, provide new angles on running stories, and generally give the sense of taking the public mood seriously. But when a poll says something that goes against their own vested interest, it heads immediately for the electronic spike.
The Black plans, the Hunt plans, any plan that is cooked up by the same media power brokers who cooked up the PCC, chief among them Paul Dacre of the Mail and senior executives of the Murdoch titles, should be seen for what they are – a defence of the status quo dressed up as a plan for change, a tactic designed to allow them to carry on as they always have once the report is published, Parliament’s view is taken, and the caravan moves on.
When all the Guardian agonising is done, the editor and his team need to ask one simple question … Are they with Dacre, Murdoch and Black, or with the Dowlers, the McCanns, the Watsons, the Christoper Jefferies of this world, and all the others who have cause to be grateful to their brilliant investigative journalism, which has given Britain a once in a lifetime chance to save the press from the damage it has done to itself and to the country?
Here is The Guardian editorial…
Somewhere in the corridors of the Royal Courts of Justice, Sir Brian Leveson is toiling away on his keenly awaited report into the ethics and standards of the British press. Even at this late stage – the white smoke is expected within a few weeks – there is much furious lobbying, both by those who wish Lord Justice Leveson to turn the statutory thumbscrews on journalists and, on the other side, by those who believe that the judge may be set on sweeping away 200 years or more of press freedom.
Into the midst of this heady atmosphere has burst the Jimmy Savile story – which has been instantly seized on by all sides to prove one point or another. Savile can be a clarion call for an unshackled press or, seen differently, it can demonstrate that statutory regulation is hardly an obstacle to robust investigative journalism (the story was, after all, broken by Ofcom-regulated ITV). In other hands it can demonstrate how admirably transparent the BBC is, or else can be used to prove that the corporation – which is probably the most trusted and admired news organisation in the world – is in fact utterly corrupt and contemptible and in need of a Leveson inquiry all of its own.
The debate has, in other words, become a little overheated – particularly given that few, if any, have any idea what Sir Brian actually has in mind and that the judge is unlikely to be much impressed by vocal last-minute campaigning by either side. He presumably well understands that the lobbying is less aimed at him as at the politicians who will, in time, have to reach a decision on his recommendations.
From his own pronouncements and questions while his inquiry was sitting, we can hazard a guess that Sir Brian is likely to be examining the middle ground between the two extremes being urged on him. There is real opportunity in this space, otherwise known as independent regulation.
Sir Brian can build on the real progress made by Lord Black in outlining a new system of regulation which enjoys widespread support across the press. This proposal is not, as its critics claim, the status quo. It promises real investigations, tough sanctions and a commitment to the enforcement of standards that its predecessor, the PCC, did not have. It is, as drafted, far from perfect. It vests too much power in an industry funding body which retains key powers over the regulator, especially the ability to appoint the press members of key committees. Students of the PCC – and of how it came to produce such a lamentable response to the phone-hacking scandal – will know these are the very mechanics of the old discredited system. Leveson will surely reject them, as would parliament.
Use of statute
But there is still merit in the outline Black plan, which goes some way to solving the so-called Richard Desmond problem – the fear that major publishers could undermine the system by simply leaving it – by requiring all publishers over a certain size to sign a five-year contract. Critics argue that this is insufficiently enduring. But this is where Leveson’s idea of adding an arbitral arm to the regulator for legal press complaints could be critical. The arbitral wing would give cheap and quick justice to complainants and publishers alike. It would reward those in the system by offering legal defences and lower penalties.
Some observers point out that such an arbitral system would need to be enshrined in law with the press regulator recognised in statute. That may be true, but this use of statute merely builds on the precedent of section 12 of the Human Rights Act, which asks judges to consider regulatory codes in their deliberations over free expression. For the press to oppose such a limited use of statute as a matter of principle would seem to be counter-productive. This creation of a quick and simplified arbitral system – along with the defamation bill currently wending its way through parliament – would do much to address the scandal of Britain’s libel laws as well as making the new regulatory system work. One of the most important media lessons about Jimmy Savile may be that, while there was nothing in regulation to stop newspapers exposing Savile during his lifetime, there was plenty to deter them in the libel laws.
Some of the victims of hacking are, understandably, sceptical about any voluntary system. We sympathise with these concerns. But the trouble with compulsory regulation is that, in the wrong hands, it could edge us back towards something that looks like the licensing of the press and of journalists – something that was abolished in the late 17th century and which has no place in a free society. Some counter that this is a baseless fear, claiming that it would be possible to enshrine in law the regulator’s independence from both government and the newspaper industry.
These are reasonable arguments to make in reasonable times. But will we always live in such times? The question is whether, having once conceded parliament’s right to lay down the law about the regulation of the press, a Rubicon has been crossed – at least politically. Europe may be on the brink of a period of social turbulence – with all the authoritarian responses that will almost inevitably follow. See this week’s arrest of the Greek journalist Costas Vaxevanis for publishing the names of alleged tax evaders. And look at the fury recently directed by the press and MPs at the BBC’s news operation and see how ugly the mood can turn against even the most ethical and professional news organisations.
There are plenty of laws already affecting journalists in this country. The argument is sometimes advanced that – given these laws – we should just leave it to the police. But the phone-hacking saga revealed that Britain’s largest police force behaved in an extraordinary way when confronted with the might of one immensely powerful newspaper group. The law on its own is not sufficient – which is why Leveson has to consider regulation and then ask searching questions about media plurality. He must help politicians see why no media baron must ever again be allowed to carve out the kind of dominance enjoyed for more than a generation by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
Our own position remains as we argued it before the inquiry this summer. We believe in independent regulation, both from politicians and the press itself. We do believe in a contract system – not the use of statute – to secure participation. But we also believe in an arbitral arm which incentivises the regulated to pursue high standards and penalises anyone who walks away. We believe that the regulator must have real investigatory powers and sanctions. And, above all, we believe in the importance of plurality.