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Leveson: Godfathers on the run from the law

Given true words and jests and all that, it was perhaps unwise of the Daily Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher to tweet that the editors’ visit to Downing Street to discuss the Leveson report with the Prime Minister “felt like the summoning of the Five Families in The Godfather”.

Happily for the families, they run most of the news distribution in the UK, which means what most of us know of Leveson is what they wanted us to know — a recommendation of statutory underpinning that was so quickly rejected by the prime minister that they could make it the story. Those liberal outcasts The Guardian and The Independent went further in telling us what Leveson had said, but fortunately no one really reads them. As for the broadcasters, judicial reports the length of Proust do not make great television.

Because history is written by the victors, the great judicial report has become what the fastest, noisiest responses say it is. The detailed narrative of Leveson, as moulded by the hands of the industry it criticises, is now concern about some press activity, criticism of the Press Complaints Commission, an abject failure to understand what the internet has done — and, most importantly, a misguided attempt to introduce statutory control. The editors have scrupulously reported, but properly rationed, his examples of the worst excesses by journalists. To the frustration of Hacked Off and its supporters, only the most dedicated will plough through a report that carries page after page of serious indictment of the kind of behaviour that has become routine for much of the British newspaper industry.

Even those of us who oppose the mildest forms of statutory control may feel a little ambivalent about the speed with which the newspaper industry has wriggled off this latest hook, the sixth attempt in some 65 years to call time in the fabled “last chance saloon”. After all the evidence, all the examples of wickedness, are our editors to get clean away?

It looks as if they might, now they have woken up to the need to adopt a less truculent tone. The task is to kick the habits of a lifetime and work together on a proposal that takes us into a genuinely new territory of self-regulation. For the past 20 years, the industry has largely acquiesced in the PCC being stitched together — let us not say stitched up — by the late David English and by Paul Dacre, successive editors at the Daily Mail. When it became clear the game was up for the old PCC, the Telegraph joined forces, seconding Lord Black of Brentwood — formerly Guy Black of the PCC — to the cause. Lord Hunt was the acceptable face and the safe pair of hands. In the new world, he can be neither of those. The Hunt Black alternative is no more.

The editors have moved remarkably fast, though that comes easily to men and women used to stringing thousands of words of copy into a coherent whole each day. Meeting the day after Downing Street they sat down to compare the Leveson proposals for regulation with their own. Remarkably they appear to be prepared to move on almost everything, at least while there is a gun to their heads. The sticking points are reasonable. They want: a separate body to agree standards; no automatic right of complaint for third parties; more clarity on pre-publication advice; transparency to be an aspiration rather than a rule; no right for the regulator to “intervene in cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting and in so doing reflect the spirit of equalities legislation”.

The big one, of course, is the statute question. What is the recognition body that certifies the new regulator? No one in the industry wants Ofcom. Even Ofcom doesn’t want Ofcom. But how do we avoid the dread “statutory underpinning”? The editors won’t accept — or not if they have a choice in the matter — Parliament or the judiciary. They want a senior, retired judge. So we wait on Oliver Letwin, prime ministerial policy adviser, to work out a way that isn’t statutory.

The speed with which they have moved should keep them ahead of the majority at Westminster that is believed to support some form of statutory control. With goodwill they may even resolve the many detailed questions that emerge over the coming weeks: funding, pre-publication advice, committee membership, voluntary submission to the new regulator. But will they do this with a good heart, in the belief that behaving better can be a benefit rather than an obstacle to a free press? Or is this merely a political accommodation, designed to prolong the activities of a Mafia class?

— Kim Fletcher, editor

Posted by British Journalism Review @ 3.51pm on 6 December, 2012


  1. ‘Even Ofcom doesn’t want Ofcom’ sums it up. Ofcom has a censors’ blood in its veins and we should be talking about reducing its ‘regulatory’ power over content not extending its oversight over the press — even in the most supposedly ‘hands-off’ supervisory way.

    Whatever the strengths of Leveson’s proposals (and they are far from being without merit, the OFcom danger apart), it is a pity that, overall, he has indulged in such a ‘cut and paste’ job (as Peter Preston put it).

    What is really needed is control over ownership, not content. Content abuse should be a matter for the general law and (as Leveson begins to suggest) deficiencies in that law should be urgently corrected by reform.

    Otherwise, what we ought to be looking at is ownership concentration and the abuses of power that inevitably flow form it. What is Hackgate if not a glaring example of that?

    Brian Winston

    Comment by Brian Winston — 7 December, 2012 @ 11.03pm

  2. When April Jones, a five-year-old schoolgirl, was abducted in her tiny Welsh home town of Machynlleth in September, the media understandably descended in force. As the search for her — or her body — continued, the media presence grew and they stayed for days.

    Yet the people of the town didn’t have a word of criticism about their activities. Police, local council and church representatives actually praised them for their sympathetic treatment of a dreadful situation and for their practical help.

    There were no mass ranks of hacks, cameras and arc lights camped day after day outside April’s parents’ home. No newspaper floated the idea, as with the McCanns, that perhaps the parents were somehow guilty. When a local man was arrested he was not treated, as Christopher Jefferies had been in Bristol, as if he must be guilty.

    Why were the media so civilised? So considerate? So much like most human beings? Could it be that they knew that someone up there – in the High Court - was watching their behaviour? And, when he is no longer watching so closely, will they continue to behave in the same way?

    Personally I doubt it unless some version of the legal underpinning Leveson suggests is put into effect. Worse, even if it is. Remember, hacking was illegal.

    Comment by Don Berry — 8 December, 2012 @ 7.07pm

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