Sunday 23 December 2012

Leveson has let the politicians off the hook

I was really impressed by Leveson when he started work with such a clear but broad agenda and a wide grasp of critical and relevant issues. The pace and volume were quite impressive. For me, Leveson was a disappointment because he has let the politicians off the hook.

He set out broad themes clearly showing the links between the actions and bad behaviour of the press, politicians and the police. Module 1 covers the relationship between the press and the public. Module 2 covers the relationships between the press and police. Module 3 covers the relationship between press and politicians. While the first part was largely about phone hacking, the Inquiry was quite correctly much wider than this in what it actually covered.

I wrote submissions about the ethos of the police (re. Module 2) and the media and political behaviour (re. Module 3). What was disappointing is that, when Leveson reported, he returned to the narrow issues of any direct wrongdoing, except in relation to the behaviour of journalists themselves in unprofessional relationships with police officers or politicians. He completely ignored the fact that New Labour’s obsession with public relations and the media, their leaking and the bad behaviour by politicians and activists across political parties, but particularly at the top of the Labour and Conservative parties, contributed to the lack of standards. What the Inquiry basically said and concluded was right, but it was much narrower than the initial coverage appeared to suggest.

The BBC did summarise these points [under ‘Politicians’]:
  • Politicians of all parties had developed “too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest”.
  • The relationship between politicians and press over the last three decades has damaged the perception of public affairs.
A flaw in the report is the lack of a proper useable Executive Summary (presumably the judge wanted to avoid selective extracts from the report but has made it less accessible) or even an obvious ‘at a glance’ explanation of what is in each of the four volumes – until you open one and read the 11 pages of contents.

The report is impressive and, yes, the Inquiry was hugely expensive and took a year and four months but it was nothing as wasteful as some have been and it did do a huge amount of work. It also was probably worth the cost in providing the media with copy, and the Twitterati and public relations and political classes with something to talk about continually for many months.

But Leveson has missed the chance to put ethical behaviour back at the heart of British public life – whether as a journalist, an MP, a spin doctor or special adviser, a minister or activist.

A report of 2,000 pages that does not include one mention of the Oldham case and the behaviour of Labour MP Phil Woolas (a government minister no less) lets politicians off the hook for their bad behaviour and fails even to mention the worst example of it relevant to why stones cannot just be thrown at the media (ignoring straight criminality of some MPs in the expenses scandal).

The phone hacking scandal showed that some apparent paranoid conspiracy theories of press intrusion against celebrities and ordinary members of the public caught in the news are true.

A graduate and trainee lawyer who has worked in the media, Sally Goodhall, responded to my ‘So what do you think about Levenson’ question. She argued, “Regulation and reform was always going to come about, and it would have come about without such a convoluted and costly process,” but I was less optimistic. After the Prime Minister’s head-in-the-sand attitude, I am still less optimistic.

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