By endorsing the cancellation of part 2 of the Leveson inquiry the Guardian has conclusively switched sides in the debate about press abuses, joining hands with the perpetrators of those abuses and their friends in the Conservative government.
The paper’s editorial justifying this switch is a disgraceful mishmash of dissimulation, ignorance, playground logic and shifty language. Here is my analysis, with the Guardian’s words in italics.
“Is it feasible to improve the culture, practice and ethics of the press and at the same time protect and promote the best of journalism in the public interest?”
This was precisely the remit of the Leveson Part 1 – a wholly independent public inquiry set up by cross-party agreement and led by a very senior judge. Its report found that it was indeed possible – and also vital, given that papers had been ‘wreaking havoc in the lives of innocent people’. The Guardian’s leadership does not seem to have paid attention.
“The government thinks so – without recourse to the second part of the Leveson inquiry”.
The second part of the Leveson inquiry is not relevant to this point. To repeat, improving the culture, practice and ethics of the press was the remit of part one, which concluded in 2012. The second part is meant to tackle criminality and who was responsible.
“This approach should be given a chance”.
Here is the Guardian – the Guardian – endorsing a unilateral decision by a minority Conservative government to cancel a public inquiry that was established as a result of cross-party agreement, when the other parties to that agreement are crying foul and the presiding judge himself has said that the public interest demands that it should go ahead. Just think about that.
Leveson 2 had proposed to look at the extent of governance failings by newspapers, how these were investigated by the police and whether police officers received corrupt payments.
This is a basic summary of the terms of reference.
The outcome of the independent review into the unsolved murder of the private investigator Daniel Morgan, which has been running for almost five years, may necessitate deeper examination of these issues.
A meaningful editorial would explain that the Morgan case is Britain’s most investigated unsolved murder, a cesspit of corruption in which, beyond all doubt, the Murdoch newspaper organisation is very deeply implicated. It would also acknowledge that an independent review lacks the investigative powers and transparency of a public inquiry.
Lord Justice Leveson argues that his original inquiry into phone hacking only considered that done by the now defunct News of the World.
Argues? Why does the Guardian want its readers to think this is in any doubt? It is a plain fact that at the time of his first inquiry only the hacking by the News of the World had been exposed (by the Guardian). And that first part was not ‘into’ phone hacking. Again, the facts show that Part one had no powers to investigate hacking; that was meant to be done by Part two.
Recent court settlements appear to show similar behaviour at the Mirror Group.
More weasel words. There is no question of ‘appearing to show’. As the Guardian itself has reported, the Mirror management has publicly and formally admitted large-scale hacking by three of its national papers. Moreover, it has admitted that senior executives and editors knew about it. As a point of fact, none of those executives has been called to account – which should have been a matter for Leveson part two.
The judge says reviewing all of the evidence would best serve the public interest.
This is a line to remember. The Guardian newspaper – yes, a national newspaper employing journalists, and yes, the Guardian newspaper – is not sure that reviewing evidence is in the public interest. It has to say ‘the judge says’.
Yet in interrogating all these issues, important as they are, Leveson 2 would ultimately end up like a driver learning to steer by looking in the rear-view mirror at the road behind rather than the one ahead.
This is playground reasoning, unworthy of any newspaper. It is an argument for never having a public inquiry again, indeed for never having court trials and for never conducting investigative journalism into anything that has happened in the past. Imagine saying to the victims of Grenfell Tower, ‘Forget the past, it’s the future that matters.’ That is the Guardian approach.
Newspapers today face an existential threat due to a combination of social, technical and economic factors. Their circulation has fallen by a third since the Leveson inquiry. In the last decade hundreds of newspapers have closed. Digital disordering of news has sucked revenues out of print. While more people than ever have access to newspaper content, it is the platforms like Facebook that have hoovered up the profits. Tech giants stood by as the information economy became contaminated by fake news and malicious foreign actors.
This is simply irrelevant – unless the Guardian is implying that because the newspaper industry has a lot on its mind it should not be accountable to the public and should not have to learn lessons from its record of industrial-scale criminality.
Proceeding with Leveson 2 would raise the threat of press regulation…
Again, Leveson 2 is not about regulation. It is about criminality, complicity and management failure, finding the truth and learning the lessons. As for ‘the threat of press regulation’, this is rank stupidity. The whole industry claims it has been regulated since the 1950s. The Guardian itself claims it is regulated (by itself). Press regulation, in principle at least, is a fact and not a threat – though it is true that the Guardian’s new allies are terrified of the idea of regulation that is actually effective.
…while there is no sign of a regulatory framework for Silicon Valley firms that would make the polluter pay.
This implies that because Google is not regulated there should be no regulatory pressure on the press to be accurate, fair or ethical. This is advocating a lowest common denominator for journalistic standards, indeed it implies that standards should not be set by journalists at all, but by whatever is the most reckless organisation in the information world.
The first part of Leveson had a substantial effect. Two press regulators are now in existence.
Two very different regulators, one of which (Impress) meets the standards recommended by the inquiry and so is boycotted by the entire national press including the Guardian, while the other (IPSO) conforms perfectly to the historic and disastrous ‘pattern of cosmetic reform’ that Leveson identified in press self-regulation. The Guardian now treats these bodies as equals.
The airing of illegal practices carried out by the press over years led to very public criminal trials. Forty individuals – including 10 journalists – were convicted. This seems the right way to do things: journalists expose wrongdoing; agitation results; legal processes kick in to administer justice.
Imagine the Guardian arguing that the law alone – not ethical standards, not the public interest, not social responsibility – is perfectly sufficient to constrain the conduct of politicians, or bankers, or chemical companies. That is what this implies. It also vainly imagines that wherever there is wrongdoing journalists will expose it. Yet the Guardian itself, since the retirement of Nick Davies, has all but abandoned investigations relating to the press.
The Guardian played a major part in revealing criminal behaviour but this paper does not believe in a form of legislative retaliation that targets investigative journalism for the criminal and moral flaws of the few.
This is tendentious nonsense. If the Guardian believes there is such retaliation let it justify the claim. It can’t. And to suggest that press criminality and wrongdoing are the work of ‘the few’ is shamefully dishonest. It took more than a few people, across large parts of the national press, to hack thousands of phones and computers, to steal mountains of private data, to bribe, to intrude, to lie, to blackmail, to harass and to bully over 20 years and more – and it took more than a few people to cover it all up. Why is the Guardian now trying to hide the scale of corruption in its own industry?
The intrusive reporting by some after the Manchester Arena bombing last year should be a cause for introspection, contrition and – if required – apology.
This would be laughable if it were not so dishonest. The Guardian tells its readers that the newspapers implicated here are capable of introspection and contrition, on their own account. And that, having looked into their souls, they will apologise. Pigs will fly first.
A prurient or morbid curiosity is reason for shame, not a reason to add teeth to a regulatory regime.
Since when did shame work in the national press? These are shameless organisations which happily lie on page one, bury a grudging correction at the bottom of page two and lie again the next day. And IPSO is designed to facilitate this. They know no shame.
Newspapers have suffered a loss of institutional trust.
Indeed they have. UK papers infamously have the lowest trust ratings in the EU (though the Guardian has not reported this). But the Guardian seems to think this has nothing to do with decades of criminality, unethical activity and sham self-regulation.
There is a well-founded feeling that the wealthy have become emboldened to use the emerging legal corpus around data privacy to chill public-spirited reporting.
‘There is a well-founded feeling.’ Undergraduate journalists are taught never to use this kind of formula because it is usually employed to perpetuate nonsense, as here. If anyone really feels this way the Guardian should be telling them that the problem would be solved by Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which the government has kept on the shelf and now (to Guardian applause) wants to repeal. If newspapers embraced affordable arbitration under the terms of Section 40, their journalists could never be chilled.
There are concerns that amendments to the data protection bill could end up as a Trojan horse for state-backed press regulation.
‘There are concerns’. Sloppy undergraduate journalism again. Whose concerns? They are mostly expressed by corrupt national newspapers desperate to avoid effective, independent regulation on the lines recommended by Leveson and approved in 2013 by every party in Parliament.
The concentration of power in the hands of a few tech and press barons is a menace to society. Media plurality rules should be used to defuse this threat.
This is a pathetic attempt at distraction. Media plurality rules will not prevent criminality and wrongdoing, nor will they bring failing newspaper managements to account or prevent future abuse.
Journalists must be responsible for standards and ethics but it is wrong to think a state body should hold the exercise of power by the press to account.
We are back in the playground. Nobody has proposed a state body to hold the press to account. That is merely the dishonest rhetoric of the Mail and the Murdoch press. Why is the Guardian parroting it?
A critical, investigative press exists independently. The freedom to do so needs to be protected because it is the lifeblood of democracy. When so many civil and democratic rights are in retreat, the calculus of liberty requires the safeguarding and promotion of a free, fair press.
This is nothing more than sloganising and flag-waving, concealing behind lofty words the issue that it is supposed to address.
This post originally appeared on the Byline website and is reproduced with permission and thanks.