Don't reform, misinform: UK press vs Leveson

The newspapers are creating a wall of noise in the hope that the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press are drowned out or fade away. The founder of campaign group Hacked Off decodes the distractions.

Three weeks ago the great former Sunday Times editor Sir Harry Evans accused the national press of gross distortion and staggering misrepresentation in their coverage of Lord Justice Leveson’s report. Well, since then it has got a lot worse.

The papers have turned their megaphone up even louder and, using a range of distortions, misrepresentations and downright lies, they are trying to drown out all reasoned discussion of the Leveson report in the hope that it will vanish for good.

Most of the noise is not about regulation, which is the core of the report. Instead it is about other supposed Leveson outrages relating to whistleblowers, journalistic sources and other matters.

The aim is to muddy the waters around press self-regulation. Editors and proprietors want to conceal the fact that they are engaged in disreputable secret negotiations with ministers for the purpose of sabotaging Leveson.

Before looking at the misinformation campaign, we need to look at what is happening about the Leveson recommendations on regulation.

You may remember that the judge offered papers the chance to set up their own independent self-regulator. But to protect the public and ensure that this self-regulator did not just turn out to be another Press Complaints Commission, he also proposed the establishment of a ‘recognition body’ which every three years would check that the self-regulator met various basic standards.

Although Leveson said this recognition body must be totally independent of both the press and politicians, and must be backed by statute, David Cameron promptly threw a spanner in the works by coming out against any legislation. So now instead Conservative ministers want to create the recognition body by royal charter.

They published their draft of this charter last week and it was a scandalous document, because ministers had secretly allowed editors and proprietors to rewrite it to suit their own interests. If that royal charter were adopted, the press would escape accountability.

If you were an editor you would want your readers looking elsewhere while you engaged in such a disgraceful political fix, and this is what is happening. The megaphone has been turned up, and we are having distractions shouted at us.

Now let’s deal with the distractions in turn.

1. Whistleblowers.

We are told that Leveson’s proposals mean it will be harder, or even impossible, for whistleblowers to bring stories of wrongdoing to the press. This is completely false, and you can read a full explanation here. In brief, Leveson in his report declared that whistleblowing was ‘justified and legitimate’, although he pointed out that in the case of the police service it might be a good idea if staff also had the alternative of reporting misconduct internally, rather than their only option being to go to the press. That’s it.

2. Journalistic sources.

Several papers have said that Leveson’s recommendations on the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) pose a serious threat to the confidentiality of journalistic sources. Again this is a perverse reading of the report, as explained fully here.
Leveson writes (part J, chapter 2, paragraph 9.3 onwards) of submissions by the Metropolitan Police making the case that under PACE ‘journalistic material’ is too often kept beyond the reach of police officers conducting investigations. The Met suggested changes to the law.

Leveson says that since he has heard no other views on this besides the Met’s he can’t make a clear recommendation. Instead he tells the Home Office, ‘without pre-judging any conclusion’, that it should ‘consider and, if necessary, consult upon’ possible changes to PACE. And the Home Office has duly said it will consult, specifically inviting comments on the impact of the suggested changes on the protection of journalistic sources.

So Leveson did not recommend making it easier for police to seize documents from journalists. He said he had only heard one half of the story and gently suggested to the Home Office that it should consider getting the whole story. This the Home Office has begun doing.

3. Exemplary damages.

Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for an independent press self-regulator would not compel news publishers to participate. Instead he proposed a number of sticks and carrots, including some in relation to exemplary damages in court which have been described as Draconian, illiberal and in conflict with the Human Rights Act (HRA). All of these descriptions are misguided, as is explained here. No paper that observed a self-regulator’s code, or that avoided behaving in an outrageous and illegal fashion, would ever even face the risk of such damages (which are not in themselves new). Nor, according to our legal advice and the government’s, would the proposals breach the HRA. (And if by chance editors are right in believing they breach it, then they will be able to challenge it successfully in the courts, so they have nothing to worry about.)

As a more general point, the sticks and carrots are a substitute for compelling papers to join a regulator, something that editors strongly opposed. Are they now demanding that the sticks be made of rubber?

4. Data protection.

Leveson makes recommendations for reform of the Data Protection Act, which, as he demonstrated at length, has failed to protect the private information of ordinary people in the way it was supposed to. In particular, its sweeping exemptions of news organisations allowed the abuses seen in the Motorman scandal, and its feeble penalties meant not only that offences went unpunished but also that it was barely worth mounting prosecutions in the first place.

Leveson’s proposals on data protection are characterised by some newspapers and some journalists as Draconian. They are not; they are meant to protect ordinary people. Are they a threat to investigative journalism? Some say that they are, and we will no doubt find out, because the Ministry of Justice, which has responsibility for any legal changes, has said that it will consult on any amendments before taking any step towards amending the law. If there really is any threat to serious journalism in what they propose, Hacked Off will be among those opposing it.

5. Arrests of journalists.

Yes, journalists continue to be arrested in the police investigations into hacking and alleged corruption. This has nothing whatever to do with Leveson, who made no comments or recommendations about active police operations in his report. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service are presumably doing their jobs, and if by any chance they are exceeding their remit they will doubtless get in trouble for it – the journalists, after all, have lawyers to represent their interests, indeed many of them have very expensive lawyers paid for by News International.

6. Arbitration.

Leveson proposed an arbitration service that would give redress to ordinary people who feel they have been wronged by the press, while at the same time sparing them the effort and the vast expense of fighting a case through the courts. This simple idea is now portrayed as too expensive for newspapers, and particularly regional newspapers. This is a misunderstanding, as is explained in full here. The scheme would cost most to those papers that used it most, and those would not be regional newspapers. And it would normally spare newspapers the far higher costs of going to court. Suggestions that papers will be flooded with arbitration claims are not supported by any evidence (and they hardly say much for papers‘ confidence in the quality of their journalism).

7. The Defamation Bill.

The claim is made that a hard-fought campaign for much-needed reform of our libel laws is about to be derailed by Hacked Off among others, by the use of a series of Leveson-inspired wrecking amendments to the current Defamation Bill. Nonsense again.

Hacked Off supports the Defamation Bill and we had no role whatsoever in the cross-party amendments adopted by the House of Lords that are intended to introduce parts of the Leveson recommendations. We were surprised by the terms of the amendments and in debate some sympathetic peers tried to alter them at our suggestion, but it was too late.

At the same time, we sympathise entirely with the frustration of peers (they voted two to one for the amendments) at the failure of government to implement the Leveson recommendations. If, as a result of the amendments, the Conservatives now abandon the Defamation Bill entirely, that will be entirely their responsibility, and also a sign that ministers are afraid to face any vote in the Commons relating to Leveson.

This piece was originally published on the Hacked Off website.

About the author

Brian Cathcart is senior lecturer in journalism at Kingston University and a former deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday, he is the Director of Hacked Off and tweets at @BrianCathcart.