A historical moment? Leveson and spectacle

An unprecedented public inquiry into the UK press has ended in squabbles over legal semantics. The biggest loser is in fact the British public, who will continue to be subject to misinformation and bias as before.

Justin Schlosberg
29 March 2013

The political furore surrounding the late night deal over press regulation announced last week should have writers of the 'Thick of It' licking their lips. The nub of the controversy concerns a disagreement over an agreement – whether or not the deal really does give statutory underpinning to the new press regulator, and hence, which party leader walks away from it with more face. It was a historical moment indeed: never has so much been made of so little, affecting so few.

The British public might well wonder how and why an unprecedented public inquiry, which poured light on decades of systemic corruption between whole sections of the media, police and Parliament, came down to this raging squabble over legal semantics. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that statutory underpinning of the proposed royal charter is aimed at curbing ministerial power – precisely what the vast majority of editors have been fighting for in their pseudo-war of independence.

But the question which neither politicians nor campaigners nor editors can satisfactorily answer is this: what difference will it actually make? Proponents argue that it will prevent ministers from altering the code under pressure from editors. Editors argue it will give parliament as a whole some kind of back door influence over the press. But it was parliament – not the government – which has passed decades of ownership liberalisation laws that have allowed Murdoch to accumulate the media empire and political influence that he has. It was parliament – not government – which passed the 2003 Communications Act, ushering in the public interest test on media mergers and acquisitions, a system that was poised to waive through Newscorp’s plan to buy out BskyB until the phone hacking scandal got in the way. And it was politicians on all sides of the House who were complicit in the cover up of endemic criminality within News of the World and other titles that spanned more than a decade. 

So the statutory underpinning (or not) of press regulation offers in reality neither reassurance nor fear, whichever side of the ‘rubicon’ you stand. What it does do is fuel a spectacle that has distorted the very nature of the problem which gave rise to Leveson in the first place. That problem was a systemic failure of public institutions to subject newspapers to the due process of law. Alleged criminality involving the News of the World dates back to 1987 when Daniel Morgan, a private investigator working closely with the paper, was found dead with an axe in his head.  According to his brother Alastair, this was shortly after Daniel had informed the paper of a scoop he had about the Met’s involvement in drug running in South London. Morgan’s partner Jonathan Rees was subsequently a prime suspect in no less than five official investigations, all of which collapsed for various reasons. We know, according to the findings of the most recent inquiry, that at least the first investigation failed because it was corrupted from the inside. We also know that the lead detective in the fourth investigation was comprehensively spied on by News of the World, along with his wife and children, all with the full knowledge of its managing editor at the time, Rebekah Brooks. (For more on this, see Anthony Barnett’s Murdoch and the Big Lie.) Rees’ firm Southern Investigations has been at the centre of the ‘cash for stories’ scandal at the News of the World which was the focus of another failed police investigation starting in 2002 (Operation ‘Motorman’).

So abuse of privacy was merely the tip of the iceberg when it came to allegations of rampant criminality at News of the World and systemic police corruption. But it was not Leveson’s job to prejudice on-going parallel investigations which have seen the likes of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson arrested and charged. But it was precisely Leveson’s job, in his presiding over an over-arching inquiry into problems in the media with a suitably wide-ranging remit, to look into the root causes of systemic corruption which had been unearthed, and which were given further weight by his own hearings. This did not require him to find a ‘smoking gun’ or pass judgement on whether or not a deal was struck between the government and News Corp, or to prejudice specific on-going criminal investigations. All he needed to do was acknowledge the obvious – that the real problem underlying the phone hacking scandal was not the ‘original sin’ of hacking, but the institutional failings that enabled it to go unchecked for so long. This is the scandal beneath the scandal. It was not after all the actual burglary of Democratic headquarters which brought Nixon down – it was his repeated lying that he had no knowledge of it.

Leveson’s chief failure is to do what so many failed inquiries have done from Bloody Sunday to Abu Ghraib. In deference to the terms of acceptable debate set by the media themselves, Leveson chose to isolate the problem to the ‘front line’ – in this case journalists rather than soldiers – and absolve those at the top. Media owners, senior politicians and police commissioners were all given the full benefit of doubt. In his reflections on private communications between the secretary of state and News Corp executives during the latter’s bid for BSkyB, Leveson acknowledges “the striking use of common cause to communicate a sense of shared purpose” yet finds “no credible evidence of bias on the part of Mr Hunt [the culture secretary]”. In the case of the police, Leveson was untroubled by the fact that the previous Met Commissioner – forced to resign in 2011 over his role in the phone hacking scandal – had dined with News Corp executives 18 times since 2006; that a quarter of the Met’s public affairs staff had previously worked for News International; and that a senior News of the World journalist had been employed by the Met as a PR consultant. Instead he states simply that “the notion that [lack of integrity on the part of the police] may be a widespread problem as a matter of fact is not borne out”.

The trap that Leveson fell into – like so many of his predecessors – was the perceived need to make recommendations that would foster or fall in line with an elite consensus.  It is certainly right and just that even his modest recommendations should be implemented. They deliver some measure of justice and accountability – at least to the extent that they are supported by victims of criminal and unjustifiable invasions of privacy. But those victims are, in reality, a very small number of people who are either fortunate or unfortunate enough to be in the public eye.  Despite a wide-ranging remit that included recommendations on media plurality, both Leveson and Hacked Off have championed the cause of privacy victims, to the exclusion of all others. Above all, it is the British public who have been denied justice and accountability for the incessant distortions, misinformation and ideological bias which continue to pervade great swathes of the British media. 

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