Last Thursday, Lord Justice Leveson published his epic report into “the culture, practices and ethics of the media”. He didn’t, for the record, call for a system of statutory regulation. He recommended an “independent” self-regulatory body underpinned by statute. It should be free of “any influence from industry and government”, he wrote, adding: “It should be governed by an independent board. The chair and the members of the board must be appointed in a genuinely open, transparent and independent way.”
But, over the past four days, the debate over what to do with his 2,000-page, four-volume report has become suffused in myths – promulgated, in the main, by newspaper proprietors, editors, columnists and reporters who want to distort and discredit Leveson’s rather moderate and restrained report.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of legitimate arguments to be made against the judge’s recommendations (The Huffington Post UK, in fact, isn’t a fan of any statute-backed system of regulation) but can we please get our facts straight? And drop all the references to “positively Orwellian” measures and “Mugabe’s Zimbabwe”? Pretty please?
In fact, ahead of this afternoon’s debate in the Commons on press regulation, here’s my modest attempt to debunk the five biggest media myths about the Leveson report.
1) ‘STATUTORY REGULATION OF THE PRESS IS FOR DICTATORSHIPS, NOT DEMOCRACIES’
Ahead of the report’s publication last week, the Times revealed that William Hague had told fellow cabinet ministers “that a “‘Leveson law’ would curb Britain’s ability to address other countries on the importance of free speech… Russia, in particular, would pounce on any moves by the government to legislate for a new press regulator.”
This is perhaps the biggest myth, the reddest red herring, of them all: that any form of statutory involvement in the regulation of a free press is a first step on the dark and dangerous road towards dictatorship and despotism.
But, here’s the thing: Denmark has a statute-backed press council that, according to the BBC, “oversees journalism, not just in newspapers but on Danish TV and radio and, increasingly, in online media… It is chaired by a supreme court judge. All are appointed by government.” Nonetheless, “Danish newspapers have enthusiastically embraced the system”.
Then there’s Ireland. The Irish Press Council is recognised in law by the country’s Defamation Act 2009; the council’s Ombudsman, Professor John Horgan, was invited to testify before the Leveson inquiry over the summer and the Irish model is the preferred option of our own British National Union of Journalists (NUJ).
Yet, as Channel 4 News reported last week, in Ireland the “independence of the regulator is stressed. [Professor John] Horgan, as Ombudsman, is independent of press and government. He is accountable to a Press Council which has a majority of independent (ie non press) members (themselves appointed by an independent committee).”
Only a fool or a lunatic would claim that Denmark and Ireland are illiberal or authoritarian countries, akin to Putin’s Russia or Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, or that the Danish and Irish governments are engaged in a campaign to censor or gag the press in those two countries.
And there are two other key points worth considering on the subject of the Danish/Irish models:
(i) Denmark is at number 10 and Ireland is at number 15 in the ‘Press Freedom Index’ published by Reporters Without Borders. The UK comes in at… 28. Hmm. So much for the statute=dictatorship argument.
(ii) British newspapers don’t seem to mind signing up to the statute-backed system in Ireland. As Nick Clegg pointed out in his statement to the Commons on Leveson on Thursday: “The Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star, The Sun, The Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror are all members [of the Irish Press Council] –they all publish Irish editions. I have not yet heard those papers complain of a deeply illiberal press environment across the Irish sea.” Indeed.
2) ‘THIS IS AN ATTACK ON FREEDOM’
“Cameron’s stand for freedom,” declared the Daily Mail, as it praised the PM’s decision to reject Leveson’s core proposal. A statute-backed regulator’s ” very existence would be an affront to British liberty,” declaimed Fraser Nelson in his Telegraph column.
Not since George W. Bush resided in the White House have the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ been so abused, exploited and emptied of all meaning.
For a start, freedom for who? Ordinary journalists and reporters or the Rupert Murdochs, Paul Dacres and Barclay brothers of this world, who tend to look out for their own interests more often than those of the public?
Second, critics of Leveson bleat about the importance of press ‘freedom’ without, as I’ve pointed out, acknowledging the Danish or Irish counter-examples and, crucially, without highlighting how the judge went out of his way to propose – for the first time in our nation’s history – a First Amendment-style law guaranteeing the freedom of the press here in the United Kingdom.
This would mean that the British government would have, in Leveson’s words, “an explicit duty on the government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press”.
Isn’t this particular recommendation worthy of greater comment, analysis and – dare I say it – praise than it has merited so far in our (free) press? I mean, what’s not to like about it?
3) ‘THIS IS ALL ABOUT HACKING AND WE HAVE LAWS FOR HACKING’
“The abuse of press freedoms that Lord Leveson heard were appalling, but almost all were criminal,” wrote Fraser Nelson in the Telegraph on Friday. “This is a matter for the law.”
It’s the laziest of lazy defences: allow the police to deal with hackers and leave the rest of us alone.
But, um, er, what about Christopher Jefferies, who says the way he was (mis)treated by the newspapers after the murder of his tenant Joanna Yeates “was without doubt the worst time of my life”? Or Kate McCann, mother of missing Madeleine, who says she was left feeling “mentally raped” after the News of the World published the private diary she had been keeping for her missing daughter?
Neither of these two cases involved phone hacking – but they are examples of the “outrageous” behaviour by sections of the press that Lord Justice Leveson identified in his 2,000-page report.
And consider the newspapers’ treatment of women and minorities, which Leveson also – and rightly – highlighted in his report. On women, he wrote that the tabloid press often fail to show “consistent respect for the dignity and equality of women” and have a “tendency to sexualise and demean” women.
On minorities, the judge concluded: “Although the majority of the press appear to discharge this responsibility with care, there are enough examples of careless or reckless reporting to conclude that discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers is a feature of journalistic practice in parts of the press, rather than an aberration.”
4) ‘WE CAN’T AFFORD TO STIFLE INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM’
“We take for granted investigative journalism that speaks truth to power,” wrote Tory MP Dominic Raab in the Telegraph last week, adding: “From Hungary to Russia, regulating journalists has inevitably stifled media freedoms.”
Some in politics and the press genuinely seem to believe that a statute-backed regulator would stifle investigative journalism. This is madness. In recent years, some of the biggest and best investigations in the UK have been carried out by BBC1’s Panorama, Channel 4’s Dispatches and, yes, BBC2’s Newsnight as well as Sky News, Channel 4 News and Radio 4’s File on Four – all of which are regulated by Ofcom, which is backed by statute.
Consider the Jimmy Savile affair: it was an Ofcom-regulated TV channel (“Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile”, ITV1 ) which broke the story, and another Ofcom-regulated channel (“Panorama: Jimmy Savile: What the BBC knew”, BBC1) which followed up on it. In contrast, members of the print press sat on their hands for years, despite having known about the various allegations against Savile prior to the latter’s death.
Yes, there are real and legitimate concerns about the impact that Leveson’s proposals on data protection would have on future investigations but let’s stop making sweeping assertions about the supposedly “chilling effects” of greater regulation in and of itself, shall we? Remember: former Sunday Times editor Harry Evans, who has probably done more to promote investigative journalism than any other member of the British press, backs the Leveson proposals and says he finds them “hard to fault”.
5) ‘THIS IS A LEFT-WING PLOT AGAINST THE RIGHT-WING PRESS’
“Interesting that reaction 2 Leveson is split down traditional lines-Left want more regulation, right don’t,” tweeted former Tory blogger Iain Dale at the weekend. “Each digging into their trenches.”
Really? So what are to make of the fact that 42 Conservative MPs – from veterans such as Sir Malcolm Rifkind to 2010 newbies such as Nadhim Zahawi – wrote a letter to the Telegraph saying parliament must “not duck the challenge” of regulating the press? Or that the letter was also signed by Norman Fowler, a former cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher and current chair of the House of Lords select committee on communications? And that the number of Tory signatories later grew to more than 70?
What are we to make of the fact that traditionally ‘left-liberal’ newspapers such as the Guardian and the Independent have both come out against ‘statutory underpinning’ of press regulation, as have centre-left columnists such as Mary Riddell and former New Statesman editor John Kampfner? Are we expected to believe that Shami Chakrabarti is now a right-winger?
The issue of press regulation and the role of the law is not a left-right issue; it is a trust/don’t trust issue. The question is a simple one: do you trust the press to get its own tainted house in order, on its own, without any outside enforcement or legislation, despite as Hugh Grant pointed out on the Andrew Marr show yesterday, “seven attempts in the last 60 years to allow the press one last chance at regulating themselves”?
Personally, I want to – but I don’t. Sorry.