I view the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry through a narrow lens, as an investigative journalist in the ‘serious’ national media for thirty years. Narrow as my viewpoint may be, I do hold an overarching belief that quality journalism is crucial for democracy and that without serious investigative journalism corruption and incompetence will undermine every public institution. Indeed it is happening.
I need no persuading of the unethical conduct of elements of the print media. For three decades I have been up against those journalists, many from the Murdoch empire, whose ethic-free behaviour and easy access to lavish funds I often found profoundly disturbing. In the post 1979 neo-liberal climate, their behaviour deteriorated with the use of private investigators, blaggers and bribes. What did astonish me is, given the power that certain media organisations (still) hold over politicians, that it all came so publicly unstuck.
So why then have I worried about the full implementation of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations and why have I felt unable to sign up to Hacked Off? For some months I have fretted about this without being able to articulate my concerns clearly. Like all the best indicators in life, my dyspepsia resided in the gut and not the intellect. But what was the cause of this distaste? Is it that as a late career journalist I have nostalgia for the unregulated days of the past? Clarity came when I went to the launch of John Mair’s latest edited book, “After Leveson? The future of British Journalism”, a couple of weeks ago. This featured a debate between eclectic leftist Mike Hume of the Free Speech Network and Evan Harris, the Associate Director of Hacked-Off. It was after this that I was able to articulate my reservations - best characterised by the phrase ‘the path to hell is paved by good intentions’. I fear the almost inevitable intervention of the law of unintended consequences.
The ill-tempered debate featured, in the red corner, the pugilistic Mick Hume against, in the green corner, the beatific Evan Harris. Hume told us that a free press is a nasty messy affair and while he doesn’t like much of it, better a free press than a constricted press. Harris strongly advocated full implementation of Leveson as the panacea. Questioned by myself and others, Harris sought to reassure us that the more repressive elements of Leveson could be tackled and also that Hacked-Off were supporting the inclusion of a public interest defence in a number of laws that hang over journalism. He was very reassuring.
Unexpectedly, I found myself feeling more sympathy with abrasive Hume than the doubt-free Harris. Why? In three decades of journalism I have observed a consistent pattern. Often provoked by a tabloid excess a press issue arises and a law is enacted that restricts press freedom of movement. If it is not a law then it is more compliance. The problem is that good investigative journalism needs freedom to manoeuvre and if necessary to break the law and the journalists defend themselves by demonstrating they acted in the public interest. This freedom has eroded and so has democracy. Mick Hume, rightly I believe, argued that the Leveson Inquiry and the demands for tighter regulation had already led to a chilling effect. It was pointed out that it would now be illegal under the Bribery Act for the Daily Telegraph to have bought the stolen computer disc which contained details of MPs’ fraudulent expenses.
By unequivocally supporting Leveson, Hacked Off and others will bring in more and more regulation that will, unintentionally, restrict good journalism as it is really done. Those who are anxious for the implementation of Leveson do not see the danger that it will have bad consequences as well as the much vaunted improvements. I admit I am reluctant to see the state involved in media regulation not least as I have no doubt the licence fee is used to pressurise the BBC. While it is vital that the victims of phone hacking are clearly heard, they are not necessarily the best people to dictate law. I think Simon Jenkins is only too right that a press law concocted at 2.00 am in hasty talks unlikely to be a long term solution.
But there is something else that worries me profoundly: it’s not so much the core of Leveson’s recommendations that frighten me, it is the learned judge’s add-ons. For instance, Leveson has supported restriction of informal Police-Media relations. I believe this is a disaster for democracy. Some of the most important stories I have covered came out hundreds of sessions with police officers off the record. When I mention this to pro-Leveson implementers they say: “There will be enhanced protection for whistle-blowers”. Therein lies the rub, as I have known very, very few police contacts who would describe themselves as whistle-blowers. Most would have fainted if I described them as such. As these police officers would have seen it, they were simply people horrified at something happening within their force, and knowing the police are hopeless at self-regulation, were quietly tipping me where to look. This is how the Fourth Estate operates and this is not just about the Police, it is a much wider problem – all public servants and increasingly, private contractors in the public sector. Since Alastair Campbell ‘professionalised’ government press services it has become difficult to access public servants. Make no mistake; press officers block the press from finding out what is really happening and more and more so. We now have a system where talking to the media without permission is a sackable and in some cases an imprisonable offence. I consider this as important a problem as phone hacking. If you want an example of the problem look no further than Mid-Staffordshire Hospital where the alarm was not raised until it was too late to stop the premature deaths of many patients.
Leveson will create extra layers of regulation and compliance would make it harder for investigative journalism. At the debate Channel Four’s Head of News and Current Affairs, Dorothy Byrne, said newspapers should learn from their experience because the broadcasting regulations gave major companies and regimes every opportunity to frustrate their reporting.
She said, “We spend hardly any time dealing with complaints from ordinary people. We have such strict regulation (under Ofcom) that we cannot do what the newspapers have done. The greatest amount of time is spent dealing with multi-billion pound organisations and evil regimes who have read every single page of the regulations and try everything they can to use that as an excuse to thwart us...using every bit of regulation to stop our programmes and that is costing us a massive amount of money.
Anyone thinking of legal regulation of the press must remember these organisations and regimes will use it to try to stop freedom of speech...please look at what happens in practice and how these people could use it against the press.”
Believe me; you don’t get significant information by asking the government or any other person in power nicely. You have to break rules, laws and crockery to do things that, if you are not operating in the public interest, are branded as unscrupulous. Andrew Gilligan, now of the Daily Telegraph, has made this point: ‘as a journalist I have lied, I have received stolen goods, and for these things I have won two of the top awards in the profession.’ In other words we are free to do the thing that is most important in a free society and is the foundation of liberty, we exercise our own judgment at our own risk.
Some forty journalists have been arrested over phone hacking at this point. I do not want to prejudge any trials that may follow but it evident that for many their defence will stand or fall on whether their acts were in the public interest. It seems to me that the law is now working well when it comes to regulating illegal behaviour by journalists.
Leveson and Hacked Off may restrict the excesses of the tabloids but will also invoke the law of unintended consequences and will make it more difficult to practice significant investigative journalism. It will become more expensive and legally difficult, a time when there is less money and less will to undertake the Fourth Estate role. In my career it has just got harder and harder to undertake - throttled by laws and compliance.
We are also about to see the collapse of the liberal media. BBC news and current affairs is on the verge of disintegration, the Guardian may collapse, the Independent is not predicted to survive and the Mirror is no longer a voice for serious journalism. The desperation of the once serious news media reached a nadir in early March when every ’serious’ news organisation reported at length that Justin Beiber was two hours late on stage. The Guardian gave it page three, and even Channel Four reported it, although trying to be ironic. It wasn’t a news story of value, it was a sop to popularism and a sign of decline.
Hacked off will support Leveson warts and all but does not have the political muscle to deliver the countervailing public interest exclusions for journalists that they support and use as defence for their position. I say to them please do not tell keep telling me everything will be alright if Leveson is law. I believe, although it is not intended, that the new regulation will restrict serious investigative journalism.
First published in MeCCSA (Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association), Three-D Issue 20.
Paul Lashmar is a journalism course convenor at Brunel University. He is also an investigative journalist has worked in television, radio and print for thirty years. He has been on the staff of The Observer, Granada Television’s World in Action current affairs series and The Independent newspapers.