Since the publication on 29 November of the Leveson report on issues raised by the phone-hacking scandal, the big national newspapers have agreed a plan for a new self-regulatory body as Leveson recommended, but without Leveson’s proposal for a legally-empowered body to vet the self-regulatory body.
Labour has shifted from backing Leveson’s proposal for Ofcom as the vet to proposing a panel of judges.
The debate is narrowing. As Patrick Murphy pointed out (Solidarity 267), “the big question is avoided... ownership and diversity”. Leveson’s report talks about the need for pluralism in the press, but without sharp proposals, let alone anything resembling the socialist proposal that the major means of printing, broadcasting, and distribution be publicly owned with guaranteed access to those resources for every substantial body of opinion, and guaranteed rights of reply.
On relations between top politicians and the press bosses, Leveson mutters about “cause for concern”, actions which produced “a perception of bias” and of which he “doubts the wisdom”, and “too close a relationship... not in the public interest”, but again proposes little.
Patrick, however, seems to suggest some support for Leveson as far as it goes.That would be wrong, I think.
Leveson proposes no real change in the people who run the press and licensed phone-hacking, or the people (the police) whose job it was to investigate the phone-hacking. He offers some mild comment on the cops (“unduly defensive”, “insufficiently thought through”, etc.), but finds their decision not to take phone-hacking investigations further in 2006 “fully justified” and “indeed inevitable”, “because of their incredible workload that was a consequence of terrorism”. His new Board would not have helped in 2006.
Some things in Leveson are welcome, for example his suggestion (but it is only a suggestion) that the Board should suggest to media companies that they write into contracts that journalists will face no disciplinary action for refusing to act contrary to codes of conduct.
But there is no reason to expect the new Board, a souped-up version of the current Press Complaints Commission, which in turn was a souped-up version (from 1991) of the previous Press Council, to be radically better than the PCC. When the PCC considered phone-hacking in 2009 it censured not the News of the World, but the Guardian for blowing the whistle.
The Board’s appointments panel will be made up of people outside the press, the House of Commons, and the Government? So is the PCC’s Nominations Panel. Its majority should be independent of the Press? So is the majority (10 to 7) of the PCC. It will have no serving editors? But it can have deputies. It can impose fines? But will it? And is justice served by quango-type bodies being able to fine without legal process? Fines which, with a maximum of £1 million, would be very affordable for, say, the Murdoch empire, but could be crippling for a small dissident publications?
Leveson recommends that publications that are not part of the Board — as smaller radical publications like Solidarity wouldn’t be — should face worse difficulties with libel law than we do now.
The law, he says, should be changed to “permit the court to deprive [the] publisher of its costs of litigation in... defamation... cases, even if it had been successful”. We would have to pay lawyers’ fees even if the case against us was found worthless.
As it is, the British libel law enables rich media companies to abuse poor people with impunity. People without wealth cannot afford to bring libel cases. Rich people with a taste for it can go to law to suppress criticism of themselves. It is easy for them to win libel cases, and difficult and expensive for publishers to defend themselves in those cases.
In Leveson’s scheme publications outside the Board would be regulated by a government body, Ofcom.
Leveson also throws in a recommendations that “names or identifying details of those arrestµed... should not be released to the press or the public”. In the phone-hacking case, we wouldn’t know that Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson had been arrested.
Patrick is right that the Leveson recommendations are far from broad “state control” of the press. But it would be wrong to back its bland recommendations, in the distant hope that they may restrain abuse by the press profiteers.
They also deflect from the central issues and contain much-less-distant threats to journalistic exposure of other abuses.