Tag Archives: Leveson Inquiry

Questions for the Impress Project, part I

Last Monday, my former colleagues Jonathan Heawood and Lisa Appignanesi launched the Impress project. This is an attempt to devise a new press regulator that is compliant with the principles of the Leveson Report, but also tempered to resist being nobbled by either the politicians or the press. Continue reading

Press regulation and the Internet's "ethical vacuum"

Following the Royal Charter announcement earlier this week, there has been much concern over how the new system for press regulation will affect bloggers.  English PEN expressed concerns about this immediately after the Leveson Report was published.  On Labour List, Mark Fergerson called the Internet ‘The Elephant in the Room‘ and in the Guardian, Emily Bell said the Royal Charter was ‘illiterate‘ about the Internet.  Since this problem arises from the lack of discussion about the Internet in the Leveson Report, it is worth revisiting that document to see what Leveson actually said.

It is technically wrong to say that Leveson only devotes one page to the Internet in his entire 2,000 page report.  In Volume I, pages 164 to 178 are given over to describing part of the online publishing ecosystem – Huffington Post, Popbitch, and Guido Fawkes.  However, there are only five paragraphs of actual analysis on the Internet, on pages 736-37 (Volume II).  Leveson says:

Many editors and commentators have argued that the burgeoning of the internet is likely to render irrelevant much of the work of the Inquiry even assuming that it has not already done so. If, for example, celebrity X’s privacy is violated online, then the metaphorical cat is well out of the bag, and there is no reason why open season should not exist in the printed media. …

In my view, this argument is flawed for two reasons. … the internet does not claim to operate by any particular ethical standards, still less high ones. Some have called it a ‘wild west’ but I would prefer to use the term ‘ethical vacuum’. This is not to say for one moment that everything on the internet is therefore unethical. That would be a gross miischaracterisation of the work of very many bloggers and websites which should rightly and fairly be characterised as valuable and professional. The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity.

The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct.

This, in a nutshell, is the justification of focusing on regulating the tradition print media, and not on the wider publishing ecosystem.  Superficially, Lord Justice Leveson’s reasoning seems persuasive, but I think he mistakes precisely what ‘freedom of the press’ actually is.  Writing in the New Statesman last July (i.e. before Leveson reported), legal blogger David Allen Green explained the term:

The “press” to which it refers is often identified by many in England with the big-P Press of Fleet Street: the professional journalists who have “press cards” and go along to “press awards” …  But this may not be the best way of understanding the term.  In fact, the expression “freedom of the press” significantly predates the existence of the modern newspaper industry, which was largely a product of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Instead, the expression “freedom of the press” came out of the great age of pamphleteering and protest which occurred during and after the civil wars in Britain of the mid-1600s…. In this way “freedom of the press” was not some entitlement of a media elite but a more basic right of anyone to circulate their ideas more widely than they could do simply by themselves.

So perhaps Leveson is wrong to suggest that bloggers and the Internet exist in an ‘ethical vacuum’.  The act of publishing what you wish, without interference, is inately a ethical act, excercising moral rights, that is available to everyone.  Its wrong to create a two-tier ethical system, with bloggers and print journalists on different planes.  And it is wrong to create enshire a two-tier regulatory system in law, too.

Press Regulation: Grant us serenity

My Nan had a prayer blue-tacked to her fridge.  It is by It is by Reinhold Neibuhr:

Dear Lord,
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

We would do well to remember this in the debate over press regulation.

I think a great deal of the motivation of politicians and campaigners to impose regulation on the press comes from a hatred of its hackery, rather than phone hacking. Shoddy reporting, blatant ideological propaganda, and quotes taken out of context in order to misrepresent and sensationalise. Continue reading

#Leveson recommends self-regulation… for the politicians

Right. We all got a bit distracted there for a moment. What were we talking about? Oh yeah…

Almost all the debate about #Leveson so far is over whether the Government should introduce statutory regulation of the press. The other grave issues covered by the Inquiry, and Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations for how to fix them, seem to have prompted less discussion.

The tunnel vision of the political class, and it’s obsession with press regulation, is partly to blame for this. But it is also the fault of Lord Justice Leveson himself. He offers a detailed plan for how a new self-regulatory body might be emboldened by some kind of law… but fewer ideas on how to regulate the way the media interacts with the police and politicians.

This is a shame, because the ambivalence of the police to the practice of phone hacking (if not outright collusion) was the most shocking of last year’s revelations. It was the failure to properly investigate the phone hacking that made this controversy into a bona fide ‘gate’. Had the police done their job, and not sought friendship and favour with the News International titles and other tabloids, then the entire controversy would have amounted to nothing more than a few criminal prosecutions. Continue reading

David Cameron makes a statement on the Leveson Report

Cameron and #Leveson: My Dilemma

The extraordinary political drama surrounding the publication of the Leveson Report yesterday leaves me with something of a dilemma.

On the one hand, I want to commend David Cameron for making a principled stand for free expression in Parliament yesterday.  This Prime Minister seems hostile to the Human Rights Act, so his words on the importance of free speech are noteworthy:

The issue of principle is that, for the first time, we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land. We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press. In this House, which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries, we should think very, very carefully before crossing that line.

Cameron also said he was “instinctively concerned” about changing the rules on Data Protection and journalistic sources (Hansard link ), which, from a free expression point of view, is also a welcome attitude.  Some might argue that these are platitudes, but they are on record in Parliament and there is no reason why free speech campaigners should not trumpet these comments.

However, these statements are tempered by the concern that, in appearing to reject Lord Justice Leveson’s key recommendation, it seems as if the Prime Minister is undermining the Inquiry he himself set up.  This is likely to further alienate people from parliamentary politics.  Labour and the Liberal Democrats are right to ask what the point of the Inquiry actually was, if the central conclusion is summarily dismissed.  In taking an early position against ‘statutory underpinning’, Cameron has aligned himself with the newspapers, rightly or wrongly symbolised by the hated Murdochs.

https://twitter.com/stephenfry/status/274179392127762432

The Prime Minister has also placed himself in opposition to the McCanns, the Dowlers, and Hugh Grant, which politically speaking seems an incredibly risky manoevre.  It is so counter-intuitive to the project of re-election that I am persuaded that he has indeed taken the position on a matter of principle.

I am no fan of David Cameron’s policies, and usually enjoy watching his poll numbers fall.  But I worry about a situation in which a Prime Minister loses public support because he makes statements in favour of free expression.

Counter-productive Hatchet Job at the Daily Mail

The Daily Mail have published a rather odd hatchet job on Gavin Freeguard, Harriet Harman’s culture advisor. Gavin formerly worked for the Media Standards Trust, who are part of the Hacked Off Campaign. This fact, and some year-old tweets from Freeguard where he (shock! horror!) criticises David Cameron allow Mail journalist Richard Pendlebury to paint Gavin as some kind of Manchurian spad.

We desperately need to hear strong arguments against state-regulation and ‘licensing’ of the press. Left-wingers love to loathe the Daily Mail, but it is a hugely influential newspaper with one of the most visted websites on the Internet. There is no better platform for the arguments against statutory regulation to be presented.

And yet, on the eve of the Leveson Inquiry report publication, there is nothing in today’s editorial on #Leveson. Instead, the Daily Mail editors choose to run a piece which appears to be little more than an ad hominem attack on someone who previously worked for the Media Standards Trust. The pro-regulation camp will spin this a more evidence that the press is unserious about the regulation debate, and more interested in attacking individuals in order to sell newspapers – precisely the sin that (the critics say) makes the case for regulation!

As someone who is very wary about the prospect of state regulation of the press, I find it very is frustrating that the newspaper that could be the most powerful voice for press freedom is pursuing such a short term agenda, squandering its platform, and undermining the case for press freedom at such a crucial moment.

#LibelReform: The Perils of An Inadequate Response

First posted on OpenDemocracy

The government has responded to grassroots pressure for libel reform, but its proposals do not go far enough towards genuinely safeguarding free speech on the internet and ensuring that powerful corporations cannot silence their critics.

During a panel event on Defamation Reform earlier this year, the lawyer Paul Tweed said that the recent focus on Libel Tourism was the result of “the most successful lobbying campaign since that conducted by the tobacco industry”.  Those of us at English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science who had done some of that lobbying gleefully re-tweeted Tweed’s back-handed compliment.

We’re lobbying for libel reform in the UK because we believe the law is not fit for purpose in the 21st Century.  The high cost of fighting an action in the High Court is coupled with a law that seems to prioritise reputation over free expression.  The truth of the matter and the harm caused are presumed in favour of the claimant.  And because the law has not been updated to reflect the invention of the Internet, each web-page is treated as a ‘publication’ as if it were a book printed in the country where it is read.  All this has created the phenomenon of Libel Tourism, where foreign libel claimants take advantage of the English Courts’ claimant-friendly jurisdiction.
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All Over Bar The Shouting?

A few days ago I tweeted the following:

I know I should be glued to #Leveson analysis, just have the feeling that it will all play out as it should without me. Passive politics.

A few people asked me about this, and suggested I should care more about this most important of issues.

To be clear, I was not doubting how important the Leveson Inquiry is, or the significance of the scandal(s) he is investigating. Rather, I just have a sense that the issue has reached something of an apotheosis, and that a better order of things will now inevitably result. Henry Porter’s column today captures my thinking:

We can take heart that Murdoch is already finished as a political force here, that the record of his morbid influence is being settled and serious crimes will be prosecuted. What we have to focus on now is protecting our democracy from the influence of such a character again.

Porter goes on to say that there are still questions left unanswered – for Alex Salmond and for Jeremey Hunt, in particular – but I think we can now be confident that those charged with getting to the bottom of this now have the political and moral clout to pursue these issues to their conclusion. A far cry from the days when Tom Watson MP was mocked for his obsession with phone-hacking at News of the World.