Leveson legacy hard to establish

Andrew Hitchon

Andrew Hitchon

First published in Columnists by

SO HE came, he saw, and in the end was a great deal more moderate and balanced than many, including myself, expected.

Even so, Lord Justice Leveson managed to give the Prime Minister a pretty big headache with one crucial element of his recommendations for cleaning up the press – that a new watchdog body should be backed up by law – and I don’t think anyone is expecting either cross-party talks or the press itself to get a workable system in place any time soon.

Much of what happened when the learned judge presented his findings was pretty well as anticipated; there was a huge media circus for an event about the media, Leveson was fairly scathing about the worst excesses of the press and then all attention switched to the Commons for the politicians’ reaction.

I was pleasantly surprised that Leveson took the trouble to absolve local newspapers from blame for the abuses that led to his inquiry being set up in the first place. I was also rather surprised that David Cameron immediately put himself in the firing line by coming down as decisively as he did against using the law to underpin press regulation, while Ed Miliband, an increasingly smooth Commons operator, played to the gallery by accepting all Leveson’s recommendations.

After that there were few surprises, as people with vested interests of one sort or another started arguing over what should happen next.

The newspaper industry, including the local press, opposed having a new law, and reacted strongly against the suggested use of broadcasting watchdog Ofcom to monitor the system.

I suspect lots of people will feel thoroughly impatient with the press over this, feeling newspapers have – as Leveson pointed out – preached self-regulation for years only for sections of the industry to completely ignore the standards laid down.

Indeed, many who work in the industry, such as myself, agree with much that Leveson said, including the need for a new press watchdog. But I think people may also understand why newspapers don’t want politicians to get involved in setting the rules for journalists, while the word from documentary makers and the like seems to be that Ofcom’s influence has a stultifying effect on TV investigative journalism.

The other people with “vested interests” are the victims of press misbehaviour and their representatives, for however genuine their grievances they can hardly be classed as objective observers. Predictably, they wanted Leveson’s recommendations enacting in full and were less than happy with Mr Cameron.

So we can expect lots more wrangling to come, taking up lots of politicians’ time and, being about the media, getting a lot of media attention. To which I would make the following points.

First, I suspect the great British public cares a great deal less about this whole issue than politicians, the press or the victims like to believe.

Second, the press is actually subject to quite a lot of existing laws, including ones against phone hacking and bribing officials – for which a number of people are now facing criminal charges – as well as defamation and contempt of court, not to mention the burgeoning area of privacy. Maybe if the present law had been applied a bit more rigorously we’d never have needed the Leveson Inquiry.

Finally, as I pointed out last week, we now have an explosion in the use of social media – a point not lost on Leveson, who acknowledged this was almost entirely unregulated.

He might also have noted that recent experience has shown us that the reckless use of social media can play just as much “havoc” in “innocent lives” as he found the newspaper industry to be guilty of, and no amount of cleaning up the press will make any difference to that.

Maybe we should bear all this in mind when we consider how much priority should be given to sorting out Leveson’s legacy.

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