The final coup dealt by the slimy timeserver Matt Hancock to the Leveson Inquiry’s intricate structure for the self-regulation of the press – and, increasingly importantly, of their websites – was a repellent spectacle. But the truth is that the scheme could never have worked.
Leveson got the balance all wrong. He muddled up two different things — the regulation of journalistic standards, and the handling of complaints from the public – then took the wrong approach to each.
The good Lord Justice was too tough on the one and too lax on the other: he bent over backwards to appease the press barons with a weak complaints structure that he crossed his fingers and hoped they would swallow. Anyone could have told him they wouldn’t. They are not of their own accord going to treat people who complain fairly, and that is that.
Redress for grievances is not a professional matter but a judicial one. You cannot ask the criminals to dispense justice; why should they? It can only be done by a tribunal of some kind, which can operate independently but must have statutory authority and be established by law. There is no way round that.
Leveson shied away from it, bowing to the press’s argument that the very existence of a court – which is accepted in every other field of national activity – is state interference in the press. But judgements would not be made nor influenced by politicians and no editorial interference would be brought to bear.
Look at broadcasting, regulated by Ofcom. You can’t get more state-run than Ofcom: founded by law, its bosses appointed and its rules decreed by government. It has the power to impose penalties including the compulsory broadcast of grovelling apologies.
But broadcasters respect Ofcom, because it sets fair and reasonable parameters for their work. Its penal judgements are always accepted, without demur.
No-one is ever going to suggest a licensing system for the press like that in broadcasting; the point is that the existence of a body that was set up by law does not in itself trample on press freedom.
The Press Recognition Panel (PRP) proposed by Leveson to supervise the “self-regulators” is scrupulously independent but set up by law so the press duly screamed it was a state censor and refused to co-operate. Parliament might as well have set up a proper tribunal with statutory power to award redress.
In Ireland the UK newspaper owners seem content to co-operate with a statutory Press Council. But no-one has been able to argue this case here because Leveson ducked it.
So we ended up with the prim and pointless PRP and above all the absurd injustice of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, under which the redress that people might attain from a publication that has maligned them would depend on which regulator the offender happened to be affiliated to.
On the other hand, brimming with indignation over the conduct of the popular press, Leveson was oh-so-tough on the profession’s supervision of standards, setting ridiculous requirements on the membership of the various committees and sub-committees of “self-regulatory” bodies that were never going to regulate properly anyway.
Talk about displacement activity! For months if not years observers pored over appointments to these bodies to check they were sufficiently “lay”. But it makes little difference who is on a committee, because the amateurs soon get naturalised anyway. Are you going to sit in a room and tell Paul Dacre how to edit? Why should he take any notice?
People used to rail at the outrage of Dacre chairing the Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice committee. But it matters less who draws up a code, or even what it says – and they all say much the same — than whether or not it is enforced. Everyone knew that the PCC’s wasn’t and IPSO’s wouldn’t be. Except when it suits them for PR purposes, they are empty words.
When the press get things wrong and do real damage to people, then they should be independently and firmly judged by the tribunal.
Leveson’s futile gestures put journalists’ backs up. This was his second failure: he lost the profession. There are plenty of decent and principled journalists who hate what they sometimes have to do and want a fairer press but reluctantly supported their bosses because they saw Leveson as an attack on their work—which indeed is how it was generally presented.
The NUJ found this out when mounting discontent from newspaper members forced the union to withdraw support for the full implementation of Section 40 – it supported the “carrot” element but not the “stick”; a sensible position.
Section 40 has gone and good riddance to it; but the rest of the Leveson edifice will remain: the PRP, Impress and the rest, applying just to a corner of the media.
So the real legacy of his work, his third mistake, has been to corral the media into two camps: Impressers and Ipsoists, if you like: goodies and baddies, sheep and goats. That just entrenches positions and helps no-one.
Leveson did a wonderful job in the inquiry, exposing malpractice and corruption at the highest level – the networks of press, politicians and police. There has never been anything so revealing and possibly never will again. But when it came to remedies, his intentions were too trusting and benign.
Tim Gopsill is a journalist and the Editor of Free Press, the journal of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.