The spinning of Shami Chakrabarti

By Media Reform Coalition / Friday December 7, 2012 Read More
Early this week, the Daily Mail appeared to enlist Liberty director Shami Chakrabati as an enemy of Lord Justice Leveson. But, as her appearance on the Today program showed, that isn’t quite the case. For ten minutes, John Humphrys’ guests had been trying to get him to abandon his stubborn hold on the wrong end of the stick. Shami Chakrabarti and Lord Falconer argued, cajoled and outright pleaded with him to understand what the Leveson report actually proposes. Just as it seemed they might be getting through to him, Humphrys smugly summarised what he had heard: “Exactly. Statutory control.” Both guests erupted in howls of despair and frustration.

“More than slightly spun”

Until Thursday it was just about possible to excuse the alarmism of the press, because nobody knew for sure what was in the Leveson Report. Now we do – but you’d be forgiven for thinking that nobody on Fleet Street has actually read it. “Bombshell by Leveson’s own adviser,” wrote the Mail on Sunday. “His law to gag press is illegal as it breaches Human Rights Act.” Reading the Mail, you’d think Chakrabarti is in wholesale revolt against the Leveson, and it was for this reason she was invited on the Today programme. Other outlets picked up the story (occasionally with more nuance). The problem is that this presentation of events isn’t strictly true. Chakrabarti disagrees with some of the last ditch options considered – not recommended – by the Leveson Report. But she is hardly rebelling. As she told Humphrys: “The Leveson plan for a more robust self-regulator s one that I completely endorse. I think there’s something in it for everyone.” Her views, she said, had been “more than slightly spun – spun and sensationalised.”

Mountains versus molehills

The crux of the issue is who decides whether a new self-regulator is fit for purpose, and what will happen if the press refuses to create one. Leveson proposes that Parliament should pass a law to define ‘fitness’ and suggests – among other options – that Ofcom should be the judge of whether the new regulator meets that standard. He did not argue for compulsory regulation. In Chakrabarti’s words, the judge “did not endorse that, he did not recommend that; he mused that if the press do nothing and don’t respond to his report that might be a last ditch alternative.” Not that you’d know it from the sub-header in a follow-up story: “Shami Chakrabati says law forcing papers to sign up to regulator is illegal” (as if such a law was an established proposal). Particularly impressive is the section where the article has Chakrabarti appearing to argue against Leveson…by restating something very close to what Leveson has proposed.

It would be the civil courts giving credit to the press for meeting Leveson’s crucial recommendations, by joining a “club” that was independent and able to provide redress for those with legitimate grievances.’

If, she added, judges proved unwilling to change the way costs are awarded, then it should be possible to amend the Civil Procedure Rules, the ‘White Book’ of regulations for the way civil cases must be conducted.”

Compare and contrast from the Leveson Report’s executive summary:

By far the best option would be for all publishers to choose to sign up to a satisfactory self-regulatory regime and, in order to persuade them to do so, convincing incentives are required…

If, by declining to be a part of a regulatory system, a publisher has deprived a claimant of access to a quick, fair, low cost arbitration of the type I have proposed, the Civil Procedure Rules (governing civil litigation) could permit the court to deprive that publisher of its costs of litigation in privacy, defamation and other media cases, even if it had been successful.

Where Chakrabarti actualy disagrees with Leveson (insofar as one can disagree with hypothetical remarks) is that, firstly, she doesn’t think Ofcom should get involved, because it’s a quango established by politicians. Recognising the regulator, she believes, would be best done by judges. Secondly, she doesn’t think compulsory regulation is a viable option even as a ‘last ditch effort’. As it happens, we share these positions here at Media Reform. But, as Chakrabarti made clear on Today, she does believe in a law defining regulator fitness – as do we.

Reform is good for journalists

It is hard to understand how a newspaper can get things so wrong, and it’s painfully ironic that such wrongness is being used to claim that the press doesn’t need new regulations. The sad thing is, as our ethics chair Angela Phillips argued in the Independent this week, Leveson offers very real benefits for journalists. Editors seem determined to ignore this, along with the content of the Report itself. If any of them have even read the executive summary, we’d love to see them start showing it. But we could be waiting a while. Here’s the icing on the cake:

Journalism, [Chakrabarti said] must never become a ‘state-licensed profession’. Some, she noted, had argued that the state does license drivers, implying that licensing for the media would be no more onerous.

Who can she mean? The quote comes sandwiched between two paragraphs about Leveson, so it seems as if she’s referring to him – but his report moots no such policy. So what fiendish left-wing apparatchik are we talking about here? There is one prominent person who testified at Leveson that journalists should be subject to licensing backed by the state: a Fleet Street veteran by the name of Paul Dacre, who is, of course, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.