The complaint by Associated Newspapers to the Leveson inquiry that there is not enough representation of the tabloid or regional press on the panel is not unexpected, but nor is it entirely without merit.
Given the inquiry’s terms of reference it was inevitable that the panel would be carefully scrutinized. The terms of reference require Leveson to examine the culture, ethics and practices of the press. Necessarily that means looking closely at the practices of the popular press, where there are more allegations of phone hacking and other illegal methods of intrusion, as well as other bad practice. It would, therefore, have been better had there been someone with experience at a tabloid newspaper who could speak reasonably knowledgeably – from the inside – about their culture and ethics.
However, we do not know how much effort was made to find someone with tabloid or regional experience. We do not know if anyone was approached and declined. Or indeed whether people were shortlisted but – in the case of the tabloids – compromised by some of the allegations already made.
Equally, you could make other criticisms of the composition of the panel that are equally if not more valid. There is no-one, for example, with extensive experience of working in digital media. Since any recommendations will have to take into account the digital world we’re moving into one could argue that is a bigger omission than the lack of a tabloid representative. Nor is there someone on the panel who has been the subject of sustained press attention, and therefore has first hand experience of the culture, ethics and practices of the press – from the outside.
To counter these criticisms of the panel, we also know that the inquiry is taking extensive evidence from the popular press – most of whom are acting as core participants. In addition to which it is taking evidence from those who have been victims of phone hacking or other forms of intrusion. So the idea that it will not hear different perspectives is not a fair criticism.
The specific attack by Associated on Sir David Bell is, on the other hand, entirely without merit. Sir David Bell spent his whole career in newspapers, starting in the regional press. As a journalist, as a manager, and later as Chairman of the Financial Times he gained over 40 years experience. Later in his career he worked with many charities, including the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Crisis UK, the Transformation Trust, Common Purpose and others. He is also a trustee of the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, and was chairman of the Media Standards Trust – before resigning as soon as he was invited to join the Leveson panel.
The Media Standards Trust has, amongst its other projects, pressed for reform of the system of self-regulation. There is now not only cross party consensus that such reform is necessary, there is even consensus amongst many newspapers. This includes the Daily Mail which, in a leader column, supported reform. So if all political parties want reform, many newspapers want reform, the Daily Mail wants reform, and Sir David Bell wants reform, in what way is Bell compromised by his previous Chairmanship of the Media Standards Trust?
No panel is going to be perfect. Nor, as Leveson said, is the panel itself tasked with making the recommendations, Leveson is. The panel’s role is advisory. In that capacity those on it have upwards of a hundred years’ journalism experience, as well as copious experience of regulation, civil liberties and the law. We could do an awful lot worse.