The Leveson Inquiry: Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press
In July 2011 a two-part inquiry investigating the role of the press and police in the phone-hacking scandals, that included allegations of phone-hacking at the News of the World, claims that the voicemail messages of missing teenager Millie Dowler may have been intercepted, and a growing tide of complaints from celebrities and politicians that the Sunday Tabloid eavesdropped on their calls, it was announced that Lord Justice Leveson was to be appointed as Chairman of the Inquiry. The first part of the investigation aimed to examine the culture, practices and ethics of the press and, in particular, the relationship of the press with the public, police and politicians. A wide range of witnesses would be called upon to give statements, including newspaper reporters, management, proprietors, police officers and politicians of all parties, all giving evidence to the Inquiry under oath and in public. On 14th November 2011, Lord Justice Leveson opened the hearings, saying: “The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?”
The biggest decision Leveson had to take was deciding whether the Press can be trusted to continue to regulate itself or whether a new form of statutory regulation, enforceable by law, should be introduced. At the time, British print media was subject to a system of voluntary self regulation that had been in place since 1953, when the Press Council was established as a response to a Royal Commission report. As complaints continued about breaches of privacy and lack of redress, led to the establishment of Calcutta Review of press regulation and the replacement in 1991 of the industry-dominated Press Council by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). It quickly became the national question of how British media should or should not be regulated, one poll from the campaign group Hacked Off suggested that there was in fact a strong support for an independent press regulator that would be backed by the law, with around 78% of those questioned in the poll arguing that a voluntary self-regulation has failed and calls for a new system of regulation. However, the Press strongly opposed the statutory regulation, with many stating it will put independence at risk, this led to PCC chair Lord Hunt and Lord Black of the Press Standards Board of Finance to announce plans of new “Beefed-up self-regulation body” that would replace the current PCC and impose tougher sanctions adding an investigative arm to seek out wrong-doings.
Then on the 29th November 2012 the final reports were released. Leveson found that the existing Press Complaints Commission was not sufficient and a new, independent body, which would have new sanctions available, one of which was the allowing of exemplary damages to be awarded in cases brought against non-participants in the scheme. Ian Hislop, editor of the Private Eye, which previously had not signed up to the PCC, said he was “In concurrence with a lot of the Leveson’s findings and the handling of the Inquiry.” However, Hislop expressed on many occasions how he disagreed with state regulation and in particular with the exemplary damages on potential libel actions, even if they won the case, saying:
“[On the plans to regulate the press] They have decided to reject the newspapers own solution and have a Royal Charter. But the main thing that is coming out of the proposal is that, publications that wont join up to the regulators, such as, say a small magazine like Private Eye. These publications, if they get involved in a liable action, and they win! They prove that they were right to say it. They will not only have to pay all their own costs, they will have to pay all of the costs from the person who sued them. That is now law. That has already been enacted by the Government, not by anyone independent, by the politicians. So the idea that then given any say on the rest of the press they will act responsibly, they wont, they will punish those whose views they don’t like and who wont play ball and obviously, that may well be me.” – BBC – Have I Got News For You, series 46 episode 2.
The Leveson Inquiry represents the most concentrated investigation into the ethics and practice of the press that Britain has ever seen, the issues that rose up during the time of the inquiry centred around the way journalism should or should not be controlled, it brought to question the decorum of the journalist themselves, the issues of our privacy and the importance of respect, it brought up the many issues of harassment and made more aware the connections between politics and publishers, and all of these issues are still relevant now, except they are now less transparent, we still have magazines that scrutinise celebrities and body shame women, newspapers that attempt to damage political parties and aim fire at certain classes and racial groups, and the ever growing rush to tell the story has made way for even larger distrust of what many call ‘fake news’.
We know about corruption, we know about agenda and publication support for political parties, and maybe it is transparency that is needed now more than ever. We have seen over the past two years a shift from truth, some have called it a post-truth era where it is now easier to dismiss fact checking by simply saying ‘Fake News!’ We have seen more attacks on main stream media to be less biased from both the left and right, and public perception from both of these political sides are now more distrustful of mainstream media. I would argue that now is the time to move away from the traditional main stream media publications and broadcast stations, even move away from the more established independent publications, and to move toward fully supporting and aiding fearless and truly independent journalism.
[A publication was made to accompany this short writing on the Leveson Inquiry – The contents and links to the downloads for this publication are below]
This publication is a record of some of the key moments from the Leveson Inquiry, records that serve as a continuation of self-examination for those in the media and independent publications. An opportunity for serious consideration of the true, entrenched causes and effects of the UK’s inadequate media must not go unexplored, because even after the focus has diverted away from these issues, they continue to be relevant and often mutate in less transparent forms of treachery.