Wait! Leveson must delay his report on the UK press

Lord Justice Leveson's public inquiry into UK press standards is about to report. But the unfolding crisis shaking the BBC will muddy the waters. This is a call for delay.

This is a plea to Lord Justice Leveson not to publish the finding of his Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the UK press for another month or even until the New Year. There is too much noise going on, and too many vested interests eating each other in public. If he publishes his findings now they will be tarnished by allegations of plot, conspiracy, left versus right, people versus patrons and anything else the press can dig up to obfuscate the issue. 

Of all the internecine wars in British cultural life the most colourful and the most insidious is the one between the press and the broadcasters. It’s colourful because it has colourful characters. And its insidious because the readers and viewers don’t realise it exists. It’s in the family, but because it is rarely acknowledged it is distorting the debate, without people realising it. Take the press. The tabloids think of themselves as brave, filled with the sort of buccaneering spirit which made the Empire great, and uniquely in touch with the public. The broadsheets think of themselves as intelligent, analytical, pressuring the powerful – and uniquely in touch with the public. Now take the broadcasters. They think of themselves as bound by statute to be fair and good, on the side of the poor and downtrodden but also, guess what, uniquely in touch with the public!

Any links between broadcaster journalists and newspaper writers is a bridge too far for most workaday journalists who ally themselves with one or the other side, from their training days. Of course technology is changing this but very, very slowly.  Many thought the internet was going to close the gap – wrong. It will take generations to bring press and broadcasting together. The great divide is still there. And the recent crisis in Newsnight has been music to the ears of a press which has felt demonised while the broadcasters have been goody-two-shoes.

So there has been a flurry of reports in the papers which seek to obfuscate the issue and to sway Lord Justice Leveson’s thinking, or of not that the thinking of the Government. I don’t blame the press for trying. The thought of being controlled by regulators who promise to be more of the same (the “great and the good”, unelected, unexposed, who the hell are these people?) must be infuriating beyond belief to a press which has always believed in itself with fierce conviction.

The broadcast journalists themselves haven’t helped matters.  Leveson has inquired little about broadcasting. This has made a lot of broadcasters feel complacent, conveniently forgetting about weapons of mass destruction and extortionate fake competitions.  So when the Newsnight fiasco of its non-researched, false accusation against an unamed politician from the Thatcher era unravelled, one could blame the press for being on the attack. But most journalists know in their hearts that if it were not for the nudge from the good editor or the voice of conscience at the right moment, we might all be there, broadcasters and press hacks alike. Journalism is a tough call and we all get it wrong sometimes – not on the Newsnight scale of course, but even so, the schadenfreude from the press over a TV screw-up is a bit sickening.

Most important of all, beneath all the usual posturing and rivalry between press and broadcasters there is something new and very scary. It may be born of the press’s desperation. The Mail’s eleven page tirade against Sir David Bell (now taken off-line) led to the paper being pilloried (see the Guardian) but was recycled in the Sun. Mud still sticks. To some extent the Mail has a point about the people who tell us what is good for us if they present themselves as great and good and get too smug. You can always find a photograph of them looking pleased with themselves if they are happy to be at some celebration or other. Sir David Bell is an “assessor” for the Leveson Inquiry who is also a trustee for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which played a role in the Newsnight debacle (see Paul Lashmar's article) and connected to Common Cause. He was not an editor of Newsnight. The Mail thought “great!” he can be rubbished. But by over playing the Newsnight issue for their own ends the Mail has been misguided.  

But it was clever. The Mail paper tapped into the resentment of all us who feel left out from those elite groups. And Bell’s monstering will feed into the other papers at work trying to discredit Leveson or broadcasters - or both. The Times has run two leaders rubbishing the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, one of which was inaccurate, and the other made laboured points, as if by kicking the Bueau when it’s down, they can distract from their own part in the Leveson Inquiry. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has done some good work and its former editor Iain Overton is an example of a good man making a bad mistake.

In using the too tempting Newsnight crisis, all the press from broadsheets to tabloids are making a self serving point. And it is totally irrelevant. Two journalistic wrongs do not make a right. One piece of crap on Newsnight does not vindicate crap in the News of the World on an industrial scale. A trustee of an organisation which screws up is not necessarily a man without judgment and experience. Being part of one elite might be infuriating but it doesn’t stop you from being part of another, given the system the newspapers and their owners are part of. I’m glad the Mail pointed out Sir David Bell’s two roles but it did not need eleven pages of vitriol to do so. The visuals and the sound effects are getting in the way of the story, as we say in basic broadcasting education.

For this reason I believe that Lord Justice Leveson should wait till the picture clears - hard as that is for someone who wants to run a well organised inquiry on time. But there are so many important things at stake. I don’t know if the Irish solution is the best, or about how you get Richard Desmond back into the fold, or how you pacify Hugh Grant declaring it is "War". If pushed I can’t see why the press can’t face a form of regulation like broadcasters – even if only to see the laws of the land applied to defend the poor who cannot afford top libel law firms like Carter Ruck.

On the other hand of course the press will fight against regulation with any weapons to hand right now, when Leveson’s findings are just around the corner, conducting surveys which say that the public loves them just as they are. Surveys and editorials and Andrew Gilligan beating his breast are all fair play.  But latching onto to the Newsnight crisis is not. These issues are on two different song sheets and we should stop listening to the press singing one loud discordant tune on their own terms.

So, Lord Leveson, please wait. My view on your inquiry is that I don’t know the answer, but I know a man who does. I just want that man to publish his findings when the storm has died down, and when he cannot be accused of listening to anything other than the still small voice of calm. 

About the author

Lis Howell is Deputy Head of the Journalism department at City University and Director of the TV and Broadcasting Courses. She was Head of News at Border Television and won a Royal Television Society award for leading the coverage of the Lockerbie disaster.