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Leveson could give the press a foundation of responsibility

Leveson could give the press a foundation of responsibility

🕔28.Nov 2012

The build up to the judgement of the Leveson Inquiry is fascinating. Large parts of the national press, or their representatives on earth, are throwing the kitchen sink at trying to devalue the process, the man and at convincing David Cameron to ignore what he might say about statutory underpinning of press regulation.

There are plenty of comment pieces, blogs and tweets on the subject. But I’ll add my two pennw’th and highlight some contributions to the debate that are worth reading. (Besides, if we can run multiple pieces about bins on the Files, we can find room for another Leveson post).

As Ed Miliband has already pointed out in a balanced piece, when the PM set up the Inquiry he said that as long as the recommendations were not “bonkers”, he would adopt them. On any reasonable interpretation of that commitment, he really doesn’t have much room for manoeuvre.

Judge Leveson has been vilified directly and indirectly by many who should know better. As Robert Peston points out, Brian Leveson has treated this exercise as a judicial process. For that is what it is; and that is what he is. Does anyone (Mr Gove) really think, having seen him in action, that he’s not capable of realising the value and importance of a free press? Does anyone believe he will not only carefully weigh up the evidence, but also listen dutifully to the advice of experts appointed to assist him?

The press is already in the last chance saloon. There’s not another bar to try out. Tom Watson highlights the catalogue of episodes that pre-dates this, the latest and surely last, time Government or Parliament try to put the press house in order.

Many commentators point out that the main trigger that set off Leveson – hacking – and many other practices were illegal and therefore should be dealt with by the criminal justice system, not through another layer of state-backed regulation. It’s certainly the case that the police and prosecution authorities didn’t do their job. However, the whole network of relationships between police, press and politicians is at the heart of the Leveson Inquiry. What Leveson has to say on this will be fascinating. Beyond law-breaking though, it is the underlying culture, practices and standards of the press that needs to be adjusted. Too many people are treated with utter contempt and disrespect by parts of the media. Corrections and complaints need to be better handled, with equal weighting given to the apology as to the original misdemeanour.

Lord Hunt has made valiant efforts to give peer-based complaints handling one last go. I fear it is too little, too late.

Do we really think that some form of independent regulation, backed in statute but not part of Government in any way, will be subject to the implied whims and wishes of the Government of the day? Have the press – vocal critics of MPs, bankers and police – not learned anything from recent scandals? Can the press really be the only corner of society with a mission to serve the public good but which escapes some form of oversight that can provide a consistent set of standards and a fast form of redress? It’s really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny as an argument.

The idea that journalists will suddenly become cautious and bland is absolute nonsense. The BBC has more suits watching over it that you can count – its own Trust as well as Ofcom, not to mention Parliament and, er, the press. Even then, as we know, it’s not careful enough at times. In the Newsnight scandals, it’s not been the Trustees or Ofcom that have caused their problems but a strange editorial judgment which prevented the Savile film airing and a lack of editorial and legal processes that didn’t stop a film being broadcast that then led to Lord MacAlpine’s payout.

At ITV, the thought of Ofcom did not prevent the Exposure documentary that opened up the Savile saga. I remember my time at ITV where a colleague would laugh in the face of a regulator from Ofcom’s predecessor, the ITC, to pass judgment on the running order of a regional news programme. The apparatchik was put back in their box and reminded what they did and did not have scope to officially comment upon.

Benedict Brogan and others run the argument that Leveson essentially boils down to left v right battle and it’s a chance for Labour leaning figures to get their own back on Murdoch. I don’t buy such a lame position. I’m nowhere near his politics, but I admire Murdoch and think he has done plenty of good things for the UK’s media industry. But we have let his organisations run out of control, his perceived influence overwhelm and he let his journalists operate in a moral and ethical vacuum.

I watched and supported Tony Blair’s ‘feral beasts’ speech, delivered as he prepared to step down from office. His so called ‘spin doctor’ Alastair Campbell had come to a view on the state of the press some time before. Whatever the shortcomings of Campbell in office, his testimony to Leveson is worth consideration.

If Lord Leveson does propose some form of statutory underpinning of press regulation, the PM needs to keep to his word, respect the judgement and expedite the legislative process after due consultation. I do not fear, for one moment, that the press will not continue to speak truth to power. I’d simply like some more responsibility with their power.

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