Lord Justice Leveson has finally (Friday 30. November) issued his report into the print media in Britain. There is no doubt that it will make interesting reading, though ploughing through all of its nearly 2000 pages and a million words may take quite a while. Following his 30 minute televised presentation of the report, after which he took no questions and announced that he intended to say nothing more about it, attention was immediately concentrated on its central recommendation. This is that the new independent press regulator he proposes must be underpinned with legislation. Indeed, he stresses that in order to ensure that the regulator functions effectively, such legislation is essential. This has thrown most of the press and nearly all of the Tory party into a state of mouth-frothing rage. Anticipating that Leveson would make some such proposal, the press barons have been lobbying hard for weeks. Any suggestion of statutory underpinning, they said, would shackle a free press and reduce Britain to the condition of Zimbabwe or Uzbekistan. The voices raised in such shrill alarm are those whose papers have engaged in phone-hacking, character-assassination, illegal snooping, lying, bribery, corruption and various other malpractices, on an industrial scale. These are the self-appointed champions of ‘freedom of expression.’
In presenting his findings and proposals, Leveson pointed out that this was the seventh inquiry into the practices of the press in less than seventy years. Despite this, all that has been achieved is the miserable Press Complaints Commission, which, controlled by the industry, is patently not fit for purpose and never has been. However, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, supported by most of his cabinet and back-benchers, wants to open yet another ‘last-chance saloon’ which would allow the inebriated to continue drinking. Cameron himself, under pressure after the floodgates opened in 2011 to release the deluge of effluent from Murdoch’s press stables in Britain, ordered the setting up of the Levenson inquiry into press practices and ethics. It was obvious at the time that he had a lot to lose if the inquiry went too deep, but, under pressure from an outraged public opinion and the Labour opposition, had little option but to submit. After all, two of Murdoch’s executives at The Sun and News of the World were his close friends, one of whom, Andy Coulson, he had appointed as director of communications for the Tory party and had, after May 2010, taken with him into Downing Street. The other, Rebecca Brooks, was a close friend and riding companion. Both have been arrested and await trial charged with ordering phone-hacking, lying under oath and perverting the course of justice. Large numbers of former Murdoch employees at both newspapers are under arrest charged with various related offences.
In addressing Parliament on 30 November, Cameron employed all his PR skills to pretend that he was in (almost) complete agreement with Lord Justice Leveson. He was, of course very pleased to note that Leveson had pretty much absolved him and his culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt of any wrongdoing in their dealings with Murdoch and his cronies’ bid for BSkyB. This must have come as a welcome surprise as it seemed (and still seems) clear that whether or not any formal deal was done between the government and the Godfather to waive the bid through, it was pretty obviously agreed with a ‘nod and a wink’ so to speak. Still, such mercies had to be seized and made the most of. But when it came to the core of Leveson’s proposals, the legal underpinning of the independent regulator, Cameron made clear, to the cheers of his backbenchers, that this was a ‘Rubicon’ he was not prepared to cross. It would, he said, threaten more than 300 years of press freedom in Britain. He repeated the word ‘freedom’ as often as he could, attempting perhaps to evoke in his wider audience the same ‘Dunkirk spirit’ he had appealed to rather fatuously a few weeks earlier when he addressed the CBI in faux Churchillian mode, claiming that Britain was in the economic equivalent of the second world war. It worked no better this time than then . Following a very competent performance from Ed Miliband, who argued for the full implementation of Leveson’s proposals, Cameron seemed increasingly discomfited by the succession of largely critical questions and comments. His discomfiture was complete when his deputy, Nick Clegg, broke ranks and effectively joined Labour in fully endorsing the report. Cameron is now in a very difficult position. When he set up the inquiry he promised the many victims of hacking that he stood four-square on their side. He promised them that he would implement the report’s proposals in full “as long as they weren’t bonkers.” Now, within hours of its publication, he has reneged on that promise. Jane Winter, head of the British Irish Rights Watch, and herself a victim of hacking, commented …”I saw the report this morning and it doesn’t look bonkers to me and I think he’s gone back on his word and I feel betrayed.” Victims of hacking, including survivors, and relatives of those killed in the 7/7 2005 London bombings, the parents of murdered teenager Millie Dowler, and numerous others, both celebrities and less well-known, have come together as a pressure group called ‘Hacked Off’. They and their legal representatives are angry and very articulate. They are determined to be heard and they are not about to disappear. The Tories and their friends in the press will not have an easy ride. But this does not mean that they will be defeated.
Unless the pressure is intensified, in parliament and outside, Leveson’s essential demand for legislation to underpin a genuinely independent press regulator, is likely to be kicked into the long grass. Cameron’s claim that such legislative underpinning would mean an end to press freedom, does not bear a moment’s serious consideration. It is a smokescreen for defense of powerful corporate interests and the freedom they have enjoyed and continue to enjoy to operate free from any serious public interest constraints. And it is this aspect of the British print media that requires far greater attention.
Whatever the outcome of the present battle over implementation of the Leveson proposals, it is certain that the question of corporate ownership of the British print media will not be dealt with. Apart from some bland suggestions that the government “ensure that there is a mechanism for protecting media plurality”, and some less than robust criticism of the culture prevailing at News International, Leveson has little to say. As has been argued before in this column, the concentration of the British print media in the hands of a small number of powerful corporate owners, is itself the greatest obstacle to a genuinely free press. Murdoch’s News Corporation owns about 37% of the national press. Most of the rest is owned by Paul Dacre, Richard Desmond, the Barclay Brothers and the Mirror Group. Apart from the Mirror Group and the Scott Trust which owns The Guardian and The Observer, all the other newspapers are solidly right wing. The tabloids, which account for the bulk of sales, deal largely in salacious gossip, scandal and sexual titillation including crude misogyny. The political line of such papers is generally Europhobic, nationalistic and very right wing. The criminal activities exposed by a few Guardian journalists over the course of several years related largely to the Sun and News of the World, though such activities have certainly been far more widespread. The best that can be hoped for in the short-term is that as a result of the Leveson report the most egregious abuses of power may be curbed. Without the hard of a handful of courageous, genuine investigative journalists, the inquiry would not have been set up and the report, for all its limitations, would not have been produced. In the longer term, it will take a determined campaign, mobilizing public opinion on a far greater scale, to break up the powerful corporations that control the media in Britain. That is the only way to a really free press.