Bills and shills: how to make sure Leveson sticks

By Media Reform Coalition / Monday December 3, 2012 Read More
Amidst all the storm that Leveson has caused, it’s worth noting how similar his proposals are to ones made in the past. How do we draft a bill that works? Maybe we already have. Mike Jempson, Director of the MediaWise Trust, looks at the precedents and warns that the press is already banding together to try and subvert the process. Having worked with complainants for some 20 years and pressed for a tougher and more independent system of regulation, it would be churlish of the MediaWise Trust not to welcome the general thrust of Lord Justice Leveson’s Report. He echoes the calls we have been making for a more robust system of regulation, and one which is not in the pocket of the industry. The model he has espoused is remarkably similar to the Irish Ombudsman/Press Council we championed in our second submission.  That system is underpinned by statute – in a Defamation Act which, like Leveson, allows relief to those publications that agree to comply, and is accepted without demur by British newspapers operating in the Republic. Those struggling to draft a Bill to ‘underpin’ the new system would be well advised to consider the wording of key clauses in Clive Soley’s Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill (1992) which we commended to Leveson as a model upon which to draw for the new regulatory body.

Models of the past

The ‘Independent Press Authority’ (IPA) he proposed all those years ago was to seek the presentation of news by newspapers and periodicals with due accuracy; and to secure the free dissemination of news and information in the public interest and the promotion of professional and ethical standards. Its duties would have been to

a. promote the highest standards of journalism in newspapers;

b. investigate and monitor issues relating to freedom of the press and to report to Parliament on any measure it may consider desirable to protect press freedom;

c. investigate and monitor ethical standards of the press, distribution of newspaper owner ship and control of the media, access to information and restrictions on reporting and any related matter it may consider appropriate;

d) produce and promote codes of professional and ethical standards for the press;

e) conduct research into and make recommendations on the training and education of journalists;

f) advise and guide the press on matters within its responsibilities

Like Leveson, the prescient Bill allowed third party complaints, and required that corrections have equivalent prominence to the offending material. We believe ‘victims of media abuse’ and journalists would approve if these were to be incorporated in the new body – indeed, why not call it the IPA? However, the big danger now is that the bully boys who have had the wrists slapped by Leveson, will be allowed to define the new system without allowing the other stakeholders to engage in the process. How are victims, readers, journalists, and their elected representatives to be involved?

Regulatory capture in the making

With unseemly haste the industry has announced that Dacre of the Daily Mail will lead revision of their Code, while the rest get into a holy huddle with the Minister, and forlorn Lord Hunt of the discredited Press Complaints Commission will supervise the move towards a new body. What gave them the right to decide for the rest of us? Especially after the disinformation and dissembling about the outcome of Leveson’s Inquiry that has filled acres of newsprint over recent weeks. This farce cannot be allowed to continue. The process needs to start with an independent group at arms length from the industry to set the terms for the new regulatory body and to oversee an appointments system. It is right that industry organisations, including journalists’ unions, should have a say in nominating that independent body, but they should then stand back and let civil society come up with its solution to the collapse of trust in the press. They are guaranteed some representation, but not dominance. It would have been more edifying if the first act of editors, post-Leveson, had been to concede the widely support conscience clause for journalists, which MediaWise has championed of years.

Leveson’s flaws

That said, some important and valid criticisms of Leveson’s proposals have been aired by editors and journalists alike. There are worrying signs that he may not have fully appreciated how legitimate journalism actually functions, despite – or perhaps because of –  all the horror stories he has heard. MediaWise supported calls for punitive sanctions against journalists who breach data protection laws without legitimate cause  – and had they been implemented when first proposed we might not be in the mess we are in now. Phone hacking and buying dodgy dossiers from private dicks is illegal, and should be punished. Collecting information about people by legitimate means is perfectly proper. Yet Leveson appears to be saying that journalists should lose their conventional protections, and may be required to disclose any data they gather, on request. Put that together with a suggestion that the police should have even more power to gain access to journalistic material and you have a recipe for disaster – an end to investigative journalism and another step on the road to a police state. Every citizen, journalist and editor should resist such encroachments on press freedom. For the moment, we must all be vigilant, and ensure that the same old suspects don’t end up being their own judge and jury. Away with smoke and mirrors, it is time for an open and transparent system in which ALL the players have an equal chance to determine what sort of regulatory system we really want.