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Leveson Round Up: Has He Thrown in the Towel? – Damian Tambini

Justice LevesonWill media watchers look back on May 2012 as the month in which Leveson made two fateful moves to narrow the remit of his Inquiry?

On one hand, he openly discussed the possibility that Part 2 of his Inquiry will be watered down or abandoned. Part 2 is supposed to delve further into the extent of improper conduct and management failures at News International and possible corruption of the police. Leveson argues that this has been amply covered by police inquiries and more hearings and evidence may not be necessary.

On the other hand, he has radically narrowed his policy remit. The Leveson Inquiry Terms of Reference asked the judge, among other things:

To make recommendations:

a. for a new more effective policy and regulatory regime which supports the integrity and freedom of the press, the  plurality of the media, and its independence, including from Government, while encouraging the highest ethical and professional standards;

b. for how future concerns about press behaviour, media policy, regulation and cross-media ownership should be dealt with by all the relevant authorities, including Parliament, Government, the prosecuting authorities and the police” (emphasis added).

There are two reasons that policy relating to media plurality and media ownership was included in the original terms of reference.  First, the handling of media ownership issues first by Vince Cable and then by Jeremy Hunt is seen to have been overly politicised and problematic. Hunt’s evidence and cross examination this month focused on the extent to which he was captured by Murdoch interests, and raise the question of whether the media mergers and plurality regime should be changed.

But the second reason media ownership has been a concern is more fundamental. If one of the key findings of the Leveson Inquiry is that Murdoch was too powerful, how then might we need to reassess the rules that restrict media power – namely the ownership (media plurality) rules in the Enterprise Act and the Communications Act, and the Communications Act Schedule 14 Broadcasting rules? Among policymakers this has been seen as one of the most fundamental policy issues for the Inquiry.

But the module 4 questions  published on the Leveson Inquiry website this month duck the challenge, focusing almost entirely on lawyerly discussions of freedom of expression and the public interest. These behavioural rules are fundamental to the reforms of press regulation that will follow. What is needed is a twin pronged approach that also includes structural changes in the media market.

Parliament and the government could argue that they should decide these issues, and that issues of media ownership will be covered in the long delayed Communications Green/White Paper, originally promised for last December. But civil society groups will ask why the public, open and independent forum provided by the Inquiry should not be the place to start such a debate. If Leveson has revealed widespread evidence of capture of media policy on ownership by powerful media interests, doesn’t Leveson’s decision to kick this particular ball back to the Government so quickly undermine the whole process?

Clearly, there is a deeper battle underway between Leveson and Parliament. The constitutional territory on which the Leveson Inquiry is situated has been hotly contested this month. Since we commented last month about the peculiar question of Hunt being held to account by the Inquiry rather than Parliament over whether he has breached the ministerial code or acted in a non-quasi judicial way, Parliament has reined in the Inquiry to an extent and the Opposition has withdrawn Parliamentary questions relating to it until evidence has been heard.

Module 3 fireworks around serving politicians have been entertaining, but if any good is to come out of the Inquiry it will be due to genuine and radical policy changes. On the basis of the questions published this month for module 4, and Leveson’s blueprint for future regulation, civil society and the public will have to fight hard to get Leveson to focus on them.

Dr Damian Tambini is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications, LSE and convenor of the MSc in Communication Regulation and Policy.

This post originally appeared on the LSE Media Policy Project Blog.  It is reproduced with permission and thanks.

1 Comment

  1. pastpolitics

    I completely agree that there is a lot that has yet to be accounted for. Your point on political fireworks coupled with a profound lack of understanding was certainly proven by Hunt’s performance (and Leveson’s ‘How can we do it?’ question on regulation). The precedents don’t look good though. Check out my http://pastpolitics.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/1947-9-royal-commission-on-the-press/

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