Three-D Issue 20: Vested interests can be challenged

David Lee, University of Leeds

What was the ultimate purpose of the Leveson Enquiry? To satisfy a public aghast following revelations about the hacking of Millie Dowler’s mobile phone alongside the more general widespread illegal practices of the red-tops? To sate the desire for revenge by politicians after years of obeisance to the Murdoch press?  Or was it technocratic: to create a regulated press system which could be deemed fit for purpose for contemporary media governance?

Of course, it was all of the above, and more, depending on who you are talking to. For the Leveson Enquiry is perhaps most notable for the range of actors and perspectives involved. While the moral, legal and regulatory implications of Leveson will be discussed for years to come, it also serves as a timely reminder of the complex and diffuse nature of contemporary governance, which increasingly takes place through networks, involves multiple and growing numbers of actors in a context where modern government is characterised by many political scientists as a ‘differentiated polity’.[1] This supposed shift towards a ‘polycentric state’[2] means that government ‘is now dependent on an array of state and non-state policy actors’.[3] Leveson is course a prime example of this, with a range of social and political actors (not least Hugh Grant!), pressure groups, policymakers, media groups and newspapers editors making their contributions in an attempt to influence the outcomes.

 

Yet, as Des Freedman has argued, British media policy is also highly centralised, with elite actors dominating discussions and access to discussions, shaping the terms of debate.[4] Indeed, the revelations from Leveson into News Corporation’s bid for overall control of BSkyB show that much key discussion is not even public at all. This is why Leveson is so critical for scholars of media policy: it offers us is a close-up unprecedented opportunity to study the media policy community in the words and practices of the key actors involved.

 

Perhaps one of the most significant things that emerges from the evidence to Leveson was the ease, frequency and informality of the access that News Corporation had to DCMS during the bid process. As has been well-documented, there were over 1000 texts between News Corporation and DCMS in the 13 months from June 2010, the majority to Smith. “Schmoozing” is crucial – ex-News Corp’s lobbyist Fred Michel’s cross-examination shows the significance of flattering key officials and organising social events to foster close relations. Leveson has exposed how close media power is to government and how well resourced organisations such as News Corporation are to lobby government. So, while media policy may have many more participants, powerful players remain a very small select group with tightly defined circles of influence where interactions often take place informally and in a highly exclusive and informal manner.

While it is easy to be cynical and downbeat about the possibility of change, Leveson also shows us how vested interests can be challenged when the terms of the discussion change, and thus when the policy network begins to change. Phone hacking changed the terms of debate about media ownership, as ethical issues overtook commercial imperatives. Toke & Marsh’s work on GM crops is instructive here, as environmental concerns overtook those of commerce.[5] How the power of public anger and ethical concern continues to be mobilised by those seeking to change press practices in the UK will be of paramount importance in the months to come.



[1] Bevir, M. and Rhodes, R. A. W. (2008) The Differentiated Polity as Narrative. The British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 10: 729–734.

[2] Jessop, B. (2002) The Future of the Capitalist State. Cambridge: Polity, p.32.

[3] Marinetto, M. (2003) ‘Governing beyond the Centre: A Critique of the Anglo-Governance School’, Political

Studies, 51 (3), p.599.

[4] Freedman, D. (2008) The Politics of Media Policy, Cambridge: Polity.

[5] Toke, D. and D. Marsh. 2003. ‘Policy Networks and the GM Crops Issue: Assessing the Utility of a Dialectical Model of Policy Networks’, Public Administration, 81, 2, 229–51.

Posted by Einar Thorsen