Like Sysiphus pushing his boulder up the mountain, campaigners for responsible and accountable media are having to labour all over again, since the rock was sent crashing back down by the government three months ago. On May 9, by just nine votes, the House of Commons killed off the Leveson process which had carried their hopes for a responsible system of positive self-regulation for the press (and of course their websites).
The process had begun in July 2011 when the phone-hacking scandal finally broke out after years of denial and cover-up of the rampant unlawful and unethical newsgathering methods in the popular press. It was the hacking of slain teenager Milly Dowler’s phone by the News of the World that precipitated the crisis but such practices were ubiquitous.
A public outcry led to the sensational Leveson Inquiry, which could well have become the most damaging exposure ever seen of the networks of corruption at the heart of British governance.
Leveson called for legal changes to introduce fairness to media regulation, most of which have been enacted, for a small section of the industry. But both the dual aims of process – the new regulatory structure and the inquiry itself – had only been half achieved when the government put the boot in.
The inquiry was suspended in 2012 for a series of criminal trials in which a number of senior journalists – but not the top executives – and a larger number of public servants accused of bribery for taking payments for tip-offs were convicted. The inquiry was scheduled to resume with further probing of the conduct of newspaper executives and of the Metropolitan Police, but “Leveson 2” as it was labelled, was eventually killed off in May by then culture secretary, Matt Hancock.
At the same time moves were withdrawn in Parliament to enact a stalled section of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, the law that (among other things) enacted Lord Justice Leveson’s plans. Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act would have permitted discriminatory legal costs onto publishers defending defamation cases in court, according to whether or not they had accepted Leveson’s sensible proposals for the arbitration of claims and signed up with a regulator that operated a satisfactory arbitration scheme. This too had been held back, to allow new regulators to prepare their own systems.
The whole concept of fair arbitration or mediation is alien to the big newspaper publishers, who have never treated complainants fairly and can’t see why they should change their ways. They regard complaints as infringements of press freedom and have for decades run a puppet “self-regulator” to obstruct them.
In response to Leveson they rebranded their Press Complaints Commission (PCC) as IPSO – the Independent Press Standards Organisation; it is invariably a fair indication that a body is not particularly “independent” when its sponsors see the need to include the word in the title.
Inevitably IPSO dragged its feet on arbitration. After two years it grudgingly introduced a voluntary scheme, which publishers were not required to join, nor to agree to arbitrate every complaint even if they did. There were restrictive conditions for complainants on costs and awards, and not a single case was ever admitted.
In May 2018 IPSO announced what it called a “compulsory” scheme, though signing up to it is still voluntary. Due to come into effect at the end of July 2018, some papers have chosen to join, some not. If they do, they will have to accept arbitration, provided IPSO considers the case is “genuine”. The terms are still disadvantageous to complainants.
Meanwhile an alternative regulator was established called IMPRESS that follows Leveson’s recommendations and the Crime and Courts Act literally to the letter, meticulously implementing the laborious prescription for independence, including an arbitration scheme that is up and running.
One consequence of all this has been to intensify the polarisation of the industry. Leveson’s sad legacy has been to alienate a large majority of British journalists, subjected to a deafening blast of propaganda from their employers that their jobs and future were under threat.
Hardly surprising, considering that Leveson’s ideas, mild as they were in comparison with potential statutory solutions, were universally described as an attack on the press by gloating politicians and media critics as much by as wolf-criers in the industry.
IMPRESS found itself burdened with a “do-gooder” image, at least until its chief executive Jonathan Heawood and two reform-minded members of its board were discovered to have tweeted disparaging opinions about the right-wing papers, which just made things worse. (The offenders were unceremoniously removed from IMPRESS’s complaints panels.)
The government made things worse still with an act of jaw-dropping hypocrisy from Matt Hancock. As he caved in to the newspaper owners’ pressure he told the Commons that IPSO’s arbitration scheme was “good for the press and good for ordinary people who want redress.”
On top of this he announced a mechanism to monitor its progress and “ensure its continuing use and effectiveness”, run by his Department. Asked what would happen in the event that the scheme was found wanting, he said that would be “up to the government of the day”.
The deafening message of the newspaper owners against all things Leveson had been that they constituted government interference in the press. And here was a culture secretary announcing that the government had taken control (without debate) of a regulator’s arbitration process.
IMPRESS’s functions are supervised by the Press Recognition Panel (PRP), a body set up for the purpose by Leveson with scrupulously-guarded independence from government. Clearly, Matt Hancock was not going to allow the PRP anywhere near IPSO.
So we are back before 2011, with a tottering government pandering to a rampant right-wing press that could finish it off tomorrow if it chose to. The old interdependence of Tory government and press has been resumed.
We have deeply polarised media professionals of whom only a precious few will now support calls to put limits on the control of the big publishing corporations and make them more responsive to public demands for fair reporting and fair treatment.
This was not always so. A fair number of journalists and broadcasters in the past have been positively occupied in the media reform movement, notably in the NUJ and in the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF).
The CPBF was set up by the print, journalism and broadcasting unions in 1979 to combat the growing power of the Big Media corporations that were so crucial to the implementation of the transformative right-wing policies of the government of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. It had wide support from across the trade union and labour movements.
But the CPBF has just voted itself out of existence, fatally hit by a fall in revenue as unions merge and lose the resources and, in many cases, the will to support it. The energy has passed mainly to academics and the online campaigning bodies, whose loose grouping in the Media Reform Coalition (MRC), based in the media department at Goldsmiths University in London, has restructured to take a stronger co-ordinating role.
For the last couple of years, the MRC has co-ordinated a group resisting Rupert Murdoch’s renewed bid to buy up the whole of Sky TV. The group, led by former MRC Chair Justin Schlosberg of Birkbeck College, produced a series of intensively argued submissions to the various regulators involved, and though external factors (notably outside bids by Big Media rivals) have derailed the process, the relentlessly high standard of campaign work undoubtedly delayed the issue until they came into play (for a more detailed summary, see Glenda Cooper’s article in Three-D Issue 29).
There remains a slight hope for progress in a legal challenge to the Government’s actions on Leveson by the campaign group Hacked Off, which is expected to be heard by the High Court in October.
And in the longer term – or perhaps not so long? – the election of a Labour government should make a difference. The party leadership may be divided on many things, but Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Tom Watson have all been deeply involved in radical and union media activity.
Watson has been one of the fiercest opponents of the Murdoch media in Parliament and is still shadow culture secretary, if without much fanfare. The fateful Commons vote in May was 304 to 295, so Labour was able to hold its Parliamentary party together without dissent, which it can’t on everything. The cosiness between the Labour governments of Blair and Brown, which did not differ from that of the Tories in the 1980s, would appear unlikely to be revived.
Could be that in a few months’ time Tom Watson inherits the power Matt Hancock took on himself to supervise IPSO’s efforts at arbitration; and finds they fall short; in which case it would be up to the Government alone what to do.