Three-D Issue 27: DCMS consultation on Leveson: politically dishonest but entirely predictable

Before looking at the government’s consultation on implementation of Leveson – and appropriate responses from media scholars – it is worth remembering the politics of how we reached this point. It will remind us that this is not an open and honest attempt to canvass opinion, but a smokescreen designed to lay the groundwork for yet another political capitulation. It is also the reason why every academic with an interest in media policy should respond before the 10 January deadline.

Leveson 2 consultationDuring his inquiry, Sir Brian Leveson was ever conscious that he was running the seventh such inquiry into press behaviour since the war, and that every one of the previous six had been marginalised or hijacked by a newspaper industry determined to resist any attempt to diminish its power. His proposals were therefore moderate and workable: a system of incentivised self-regulation, designed to provide effective and independent protection for the public and for journalists.

Predictably, leading lights from the industry fulminated about this terminal threat to centuries of press freedom (thankfully, our very own James Curran was on hand to expose their ignorance and idiocy), and worked tirelessly to derail Leveson’s carefully constructed framework. Prime Minister Cameron swiftly reneged on his cast-iron promises to victims of press abuse and shamelessly borrowed from the newspaper editors’ lexicon of disingenuity by announcing that any kind of statute would “cross the Rubicon”.

Finally, after months of compromise and strong-arm tactics by opposition parties who Cameron realised could defeat his coalition government, a framework emerged which reflected a diluted but acceptable version of Leveson. It was implemented via a Royal Charter and accompanying legislation in the Crime and Courts Act. It wasn’t ideal but it was much, much better than the prevailing discredited system which has seen decades of press corporations abusing their unaccountable power with impunity. Moreover, it commanded cross-party support and was passed by an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons.

We had a Press Recognition Panel which could accredit press self-regulators, and we had cost incentives through section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act which ensured that publishers inside a recognised self-regulator – who must offer affordable arbitration as a condition of the recognition deal – would be protected from court costs in any civil proceedings on privacy or defamation. The corollary, of course, was that publishers who insisted on staying outside the scheme and thereby forcing claimants into expensive court costs would have to pay those costs (but not if the claimant’s case was thrown out as being trivial or vexatious).

Then came an unexpected Conservative victory at the 2015 election, yet more furious lobbying by a newspaper industry refusing to surrender power, and a new Culture secretary who was prepared to do their bidding – and thus agreed to defy Parliament by not commencing section 40. Meanwhile, the second part of the Leveson Inquiry – designed to expose the level of cover-up and collaboration between police, press and politicians but postponed while criminal trials were being conducted – was increasingly questioned, again despite clear promises to victims of press abuse.

With a new PM and a new Culture secretary post-referendum, the prevarication started again. This time, the government’s hand was forced by amendments to the government’s Investigative Powers Bill which demonstrated the strength of feeling in Parliament. Twice the House of Lords defeated the government on a limited section 40 amendment, twice this had to be overturned by the Commons but with clear indications that there were MPs on the government side who were unhappy with the delay over full implementation. And so the new Culture secretary Karen Bradley did what governments do when they’re in a hole – she launched a consultation.

Cue more frenzied hysteria from newspapers, this time parading in evidence the “devastating” effect section 40 would have on the local press. Why? Apparently because they would suddenly be inundated by the green ink brigade seeking compensation through the courts for the terrible slurs when their granny’s name was misspelt or little Johnny’s school play photo was out of focus. It is yet more disingenuous nonsense, especially given that 80% of local papers are owned by just four conglomerates which for years have been sucking money and people out of journalism to protect their profits. They are well aware of the safeguards within section 40 against mischievous or trivial claims, but they and their national counterparts wilfully choose to perpetuate the “anti-press” fiction.

Their cause is duly assisted by their own pseudo regulator IPSO, which has continued the tradition of its discredited predecessor the PCC by acting – in the words of the Leveson report – as “an unabashed advocate or lobbyist for the press industry”. Leveson also wrote about the PCC that it acted at times “as both advocate and champion for this industry, a role that it rarely adopted in relation to those who had been wronged by the press.” Plus ca change.

We now have a self-regulator, Impress, which has been through the recognition process and can champion the interests both of ethical journalism and ordinary people who feel wronged by bad journalism. But it will only have real teeth once section 40 is implemented. That is why – despite this exercise being a monumental exercise of political expediency – anyone who cares about upholding journalistic standards should respond to the consultation.

Your responses can be as short or as long as you like, and you can find guidance for either on the Hacked Off website here. It would also be helpful if you could point out in your response that i. It is framed in a way that asks specifically about impact on publishers without any mention of impact on ordinary members of the public or on working journalists; and ii. It is attempting to challenge the carefully constructed framework recommended by an independent judge which commanded cross-party support and full parliamentary approval. That is fundamentally undemocratic. A Prime Minister who promised to govern “for the many, not for the few” should be kept to her word.

Posted by Einar Thorsen