This Was Your Leveson: a reflection on recent months

By Media Reform Coalition / Wednesday March 20, 2013 Read More
So here we are. The United Kingdom will now have some kind of statute-backed independent self-regulation thing – presuming the press actually signs up. After Cameron’s withdrawal from cross-party talks put us all on war footing, he and the other two party leaders pulled a deal out of the hat in the small hours of Monday morning. Did the Prime Minister think he could win a vote and then lose his bottle when he realised he couldn’t? Was he seeking extra concessions from Labour and the Lib Dems with an extra bit of brinksmanship? Did he simply change his mind? (As it happened, Dave got very good press on Monday morning, rather lending credence to the idea that his Churchillian rhetoric was intended for their benefit) Whatever the cause, it’s worth remembering that we have only gotten here over piles and piles of alarmist chip wrapper. There was Trevor Kavanagh’s astonishing injunction in The Sun to “think of the Hillsborough cover-up”, as if his own newspaper had not been instrumental in perpetrating that sorry scandal. Kelvin Mackenzie’s determination to act as a propaganda arm of the West Yorkshire constabulary is just one example of the press being more friendly to power than they give themselves credit for. There has been the branding of what Leveson actually recommended – independent self-regulation, backed by statute – as “statutory regulation”, and the claim that a long tradition of lawless free speech was being broken (as if there were never any such thing as contempt of court, the Official Secrets Act, or libel laws). And there was the debate at City University last Tuesday, chaired by Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford, where former NOTW boss Neil Wallis shouted down Hacked Off founder Brian Cathcart on the issue of protection for ‘journalistic material’ under the Police and Criminal Evidence act. As Cathcart explained that the Leveson Report had only recommended the home office consider PACE, Wallis interjected to quote, repeatedly, three words: “Shall be repealed!” But the actual quote, as fished out by a Hacked Off member in the audience, was: “The Home Office should consider…whether paragraph 2(b) of Schedule 1 to Pace should be repealed.” Point Cathcart. Would it be uncharitable to suggest that this loud but loose approach to facts has been typical of the tabloids’ response to Leveson? In the end, what we’ve got is mild in most aspects and potentially dangerous in a few. It has a ‘dab’ of statute, a modicum of independence, and enough power to do the job. We think that, in combination with the Defamation Bill, it’s good enough for purpose. But any regulator will only go so far as long as the ownership of the media is off the table. The concentration of the press in the hands of just a few companies – in most cases run by individual billionaires – is a dangerous precedent, and sorely limits the diversity of information in the public sphere. Worse, it means that media corporations, like banks, can become ‘too big to fail’ – or certainly too big for politicians to take on. As long as media ownership is a third rail in debates about the press, this won’t change. We will still have the top three companies commanding over 65% of national daily circulation and we will still have media empires so powerful that they can lobby politicians with ease. Considering the level of fury over independent regulation, we can only imagine what the front pages would say about any plans to tackle ownership. Still, whatever the solution, it’s something we have to talk about.