Three-D Issue 20: The ‘public’ in the Public Inquiry

Judith Townend, City University London

The public was supposed to be at the heart of the Leveson Inquiry. When it was announced, David Cameron described how the ‘whole country has been shocked by the revelations of the phone hacking scandal’.[1] Of course, establishing exactly how the public feels is a notoriously difficult exercise, but what was clear in July 2011 – two years after Nick Davies’ explosive phone hacking revelations in the Guardian – was that national newspapers finally deemed the phone hacking scandal the subject of public outrage, and the politicians reacted.

How much role did the public actually play in proceedings, then? At Bournemouth University’s ‘Media Reform Post-Leveson’ conference in February, I argued that while media and political elites provided the dominant voices in courtroom 73, the Leveson Inquiry broke new ground for court and political reporting. For the first time a public inquiry held under the Inquiries Act 2005 was played out live on the internet.[2]

Online media provided a chance for ordinary members of the public, non-profit groups, academic researchers and small media organisations to expand and question mainstream media narratives, as they watched, blogged and tweeted proceedings. Digital communication liberated debate, enabling members of the public to report ‘in the public press all that he has seen and heard’, as Lord Denning put it[3], in accordance with a longstanding legal tradition of open justice.

Additionally, it improved UK citizens’ right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to receive – as well as impart – information and ideas. The public’s increased access to inquiry resources and reporting tools does not necessarily indicate a greater role on the ‘news stage’, but it opens up the possibility for greater public influence on news discourse, and beyond that, political debate.

One of the aims of the Bournemouth conference was ‘to develop fresh initiatives to encourage media plurality’ and the Media Reform Coalition has asked how we can ensure ‘a genuine plurality of voices and views in the news’. Opening up courts information and data is one such way. Giving the public greater digital access to legal material at source – such as Inquiry transcripts and witness evidence – permits the public to obtain a direct account, which does not depend on news selection criteria by a small number of dominant media outlets.

The majority of the public may not wish to access the raw material, but it at least allows for the possibility of more ‘voices and views in the news’. Those who do seek out information at source will be better equipped to participate in public debate through online media, including social media, blogs and media organisations’ sites and challenge or contribute to journalists’ versions of events. There are important legal and ethical considerations to make when disseminating courts data online[4], but Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry showed us that some steps towards digital open justice, of benefit to journalists as well as the wider public, are straightforward and can be taken with little fuss.



[1] Guardian.co.uk (2011) David Cameron’s speech on phone hacking – the full text, 8 July, available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/jul/08/david-cameron-speech-phone-hacking

[2] For a full version of the paper, see: Townend, J (2013) ‘Leveson online: A publicly reported inquiry’, Ethical Space, Vol. 10, No. 1

[3] Denning, Alfred Thompson (1955) The road to justice, Wm. S. Hein Publishing, p. 64

[4] The Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism has been consulting journalists, academics and researchers on these issues as part of its ‘Open Justice in the Digital Era’ project.

Posted by Einar Thorsen