Here is the short essay originally posted on my Leveson Report (As It Should Be) project site, explaining my reasons for initiatin the project.
There was some controversy last month surrounding free speech group Index on Censorship. They’ve appointed Steve Coogan as a patron, but he is famously a part of the Hacked Off campaign which supports press regulation policies that Index does not. Both Nick Cohen in the Spectator and Richard Pendlebury in the Daily Mail have written angry responses to the manoevre.
I’ve heard a couple of people express dismay that Hacked Off are being described in such reports as a “pro-censorship lobby”. Through my work at English PEN 1, I’ve met three of the people who run the group—Brian Cathcart, Martin Moore, and Dr Evan Harris. If you have read their countless articles, heard any their speeches, or read their tweets on the issue, I do not think one can seriously suggest that they are in favour of “censorship” as the word is commonly understood. They are at pains to point out that they do not endorse any kind of pre-publication curbs on the press.
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
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.
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
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.