This week the Leveson Inquiry moved away from the press and heard witnesses from broadcasters, internet and social media companies and a number of campaign groups. It also heard from trade unionist Bob Crow and the well known blogger, David Allen Green and caught up on some issues raised in earlier evidence.
It is difficult to know what Lord Justice Leveson will make of the very wide range of different perspectives. The evidence of the broadcasts suggests that strict regulation does not damage proper journalism but this runs contrary to the strong views of the freedom of speech campaigners and internet users. As “Module 1” of the Inquiry draws to a close, the nature of the issues is becoming clearly defined even if the solutions remain as elusive as ever. It is tolerably clear that whatever the fundamentalist views of editors and campaigners, a tabloid press with little regard for privacy and no regulation needs to be kept on the rails within a statutory framework.
On the morning of Monday 23 January 2012 the Inquiry heard from the BBC Director General, Mark Thompson and its Chairman, Lord Patten. Mr Thompson told apologised for “Sachsgate” and told the Inquiry that the core of the BBC’s editorial mission was to deliver “the most trustworthy and accurate journalism that we can”. He said the BBC only received two to three privacy complaints a year, and were the subject of genuine mistakes rather than “wilful intrusion of any kind”. He said that there was “no evidence whatsoever” any BBC journalist had engaged in phone hacking.
Lord Patten has criticised close relationships between journalists and politicians. He that said political parties had “demeaned themselves” by paying court to proprietors and editors in the last 25 years. He said that politicians would make “better decisions” if they paid less attention to front pages. He added:
“I have consistently given colleagues and at least one prime minster the advice that they shouldn’t worry as much about the newspapers. I think it is the case that politicians have got closer to editors and journalists…and not always to their advantage. It has been, indeed very, often the reverse.”
He was asked about his relationship with Rupert Murdoch. Patten sued Harper Collins after Murdoch, owner of the publisher, tried to block a book he had written on his dealings with the Chinese authorities. He secured an apology and £50,000 compensation. He said Mr Murdoch, was an “entrepreneurial genius” who is “serious about newspapers, whether you like it or not” and who had behaved in China “as a lot of other businessmen do”.
The Inquiry also, “took as read” a “Summary of Evidence presented by the BBC” along with witness statements from Greg Dyke, Nicholas Eldred, Robert Peston , Nicholas Robinson, Richard Watson, Tom Bradby, Maggie Carver, Gary Gibbon, David Mannion, Matthew Hibbert and John Hardie.
On the afternoon of Monday 23 January 2012, the Inquiry heard from two ITN employees. Jim Gray, Channel 4 news editor, said an independent inquiry had been carried out by ITN into illicit newsgathering techniques, but had found no evidence of phone hacking or blagging. He said he was aware of only two occasions when Channel 4 News used private investigators in order to trace subjects. He said any individuals accused of “serious allegation[s] of wrongdoing or criminality” would be contacted in writing before broadcast. He said approval for undercover filming would come after a series of tests and would need “prima facie” evidence of wrongdoing to proceed. John Battle, head of compliance at ITN, said the difference between broadcast and print journalists was not great. He said that reporters from both sides of the media try to report the truth and to work in an ethical way.
The first witnesses on the morning of Tuesday 24 January 2012 were Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN and John Kampfner, of Index on Censorship. Mr Kampfner said he saw “no need” for statutory regulation of the media, and championed a robust system encouraging ethical editorial practice. He said a strong independent framework of self-regulation continuing the complaint and mediation work of the PCC, but with a strong standards arm, would benefit the press. He said “I would simply argue that there have been many last chance saloons before but with the right robust and considerable changes…[we could have] a strong system of self-regulation”.
The Inquiry then heard evidence from four women who campaign in relation to sexism in the media. Heather Harvey, manager at Eaves Housing for Women, a charity working to re-home victims of violence, said that threatening online comments attacking women who have commented on political issues and women’s rights curtailed freedom of expression. She also said irresponsible reporting by the press can present violence against women as inevitable. Anna Van Heeswijk, campaigns manager for Object, said such violence is often trivialised and even eroticised in the press.
Jacqui Hunt of Equality Now and Marai Larasi, joint chair at the End Violence against Women Coalition also gave evidence. Ms Larasi told the inquiry she wanted to see an understanding of violence against women in the press, and some “myth-busting” of media stereotypes. on the behaviour, attitude and actions of the victims.
In the afternoon session on Tuesday 24 January 2012, the Inquiry heard evidence from Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim advocacy organisation, Engage. It then heard from Fiona Fox, director of the Science Media Centre, said press coverage of the MMR vaccine had been falsely balanced and given a significant voice to flawed research claiming it to be unsafe. She told the inquiry columnists often stated “blatantly inaccurate” information as fact.
The Inquiry then heard from “Daily Mirror” reporter, Ryan Parry, a reporter for the Mirror, told the Inquiry he was happy with the way he conducted himself when reporting on Chris Jefferies. He said “The decisions that are made at an editorial level are out of my hands. All we can do is learn from this and hopefully improve for the future.”
Gary O’Shea, a news reporter at the Sun, accepted his paper’s coverage of the Chris Jefferies case should been “more neutral and dispassionate”. He said an ex-pupil of Jefferies had been quoted fairly and accurately in articles he wrote for the paper but that he should not have been quoted at the length he was. He said “What I’m happy to concede is that there should have been filters applied to that information from that gentleman”.
Stephen Waring, publishing director at the Sun, said he was duty editor when O’Shea’s coverage of the Jefferies stories was published. He said he was responsible for the Sun’s “Obsessed by Death” headline and apologised to Jefferies personally and on behalf of the paper.”
On the morning of Wednesday 25 January 2012, the Inquiry heard first from former “News of the World” journalist, Mazher Mahmood who was questioned over his resignation from the Sunday Times in 1988 following a written statement from Roy Greenslade, managing editor of the paper at the time, questioning Mr Mahmood’s earlier account.
Evidence was then heard from Bob Crow, of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport. He told the inquiry about a Mail on Sunday story published in 2003, featuring a photograph of Mr Crow on the back of his assistant’s scooter. He accused private investigator Steve Whittamore of “blagging” confidential information from the DVLA. He was told by Counsel to the Inquiry, Robert Jay QC that News International had confirmed that Mr Crow was placed under surveillance in January 2011. Mr Crow told the inquiry that a private investigator followed him on a holiday to the Caribbean.
The next witness was David Allen Green, the well known legal blogger. He said that there is a “great deal of self-regulation and responsibly” amongst bloggers and social media users. He said
“The notion that bloggers out there are cowboys…is looking at it in a very wrong way. Most alleged abuses by people using social media often can be traced back to someone who may or may not have an agenda.”
He said that important stories not covered in the mainstream media were often taken forward by citizens using social media. He told the Inquiry that “first rate” information is vital for responsible blogging and urged public bodies to work with social media rather than against it. He advocated people having time to step back and compile material for themselves from online sources. He added: “The better blogs and the better tweeters link to information.”
The final witness of the morning was Jonathan Grun, Editor of the Press Association. He explained the agency’s central role in the British media, saying that PA likes to be first with stories but puts a premium on being accurate. He also told the Inquiry of his concern at the plight of the regional newspaper industry.
In the afternoon session of Wednesday 25 January 2012 Lord Justice Leveson dealt with directions for “Module 2” of the Inquiry – the Press and the Police. The Chairman made it clear that he did not want to prejudice police investigations into phone hacking. He said he would examine the history of investigations into the press “with a degree of care”. He added: “I will rigorously follow the self-denying ordinance I set for myself at the beginning of the inquiry, so as not to prejudice an investigation or any potential consequences of that investigation”. The relationship between the police and the press is to be examined at the inquiry from February 27 to April 19. The Metropolitan Police Authority were made core participants for the module. The core participant victims will continue to be represented in the second module. Tamsin Allen, of Bindmans LLP, will take over from Dominic Crossley of Collyer Bristow as the solicitor dealing with victims.
On the morning of Thursday 26 January 2012 the Inquiry heard first from the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham. He said it is not necessary to inform all victims of data breaches. He was asked about a letter sent to the Information Commissioner’s Office by Hacked Off requesting that people mentioned in the Operation Motorman files, the ICO’s investigation into PI Steve Whittamore, are notified that their personal information may have been obtained illegally. He said
“I would have to take on a veritable army of extra people [to do this]. I’m also going to say I don’t think it’s necessary. If you said to me I’d have to notify everyone named in the Motorman files, I’d be hardpressed to do so. I think [former commissioner] Richard Thomas put the point very well when he said if having established the identity of the individual and their address, we wrote to them and to say your details appear in the Motorman files, but we can’t tell you why, that might be an even greater breach. It would be a phenomenal undertaking. There are an awful lot of names and in most cases that just isn’t possible.”
Evidence was then heard from David John Collins, vice-president of global communications for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Google and the company’s legal director Daphne Keller. Mr Collins told the Leveson Inquiry self-regulation was important, but could be aided by a legal backstop. He added: “There is already a body of regulation…particularly in areas around data. [But] self-regulation doesn’t cover everything.” Ms Collins said Google took privacy very seriously and provided users with transparency, choice and control over sharing data.
In the afternoon session the first witness was Richard Allan the director of public policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa for Facebook. He said that the website’s “ecosystem” helped to police online activity. He said that “We find the strongest protection is that community of users. We have an 800 million strong Neighbourhood Watch system.” He said Facebook had a three-option policy for dealing with complaints: encouraging users to sort out disputes between themselves, involving a third-party and resorting to site moderators made up of trained staff. He said privacy, defamation and intellectual property claims were among the most common complaints.
The final witness of the week was Popbitch’s Camilla Wright. She told Leveson her stories are designed to entertain and inform the newsletter’s 350,000 subscribers. She said that stories came from a circle of 200 to 250 trusted sources, unsolicited email tips and the website’s message boards. She told the inquiry Popbitch had made five or six apologies since 2000, and had paid damages to actor Max Beesley over a libellous story published in 2007. She said that the case had taught her not to get things wrong, and to resolve complaints as quickly as possible.
The witness list for next week has been published. On Monday and Tuesday the Inquiry will hear from a number of PCC witnesses – Stephen Abell, Tim Toulmin, Lord Grade, Lord Hunt and Sir Christopher Meyer. On Wednesday and Thursday it will hear from Lord Black (Press Board of Finance), Colette Bowe and Ed Richards (OFCOM) and Guy Parker (Advertising Standards Agency).
This post has been based on the useful and informative daily “Round ups” produced for the News Section of the Hacked Off website by Hacked Off web reporter Natalie Peck. We thank Hacked Off for the use of this material.