In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Leveson Unleashed

Lord Justice Leveson phoned the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to express his concerns that the government may no longer have confidence in his inquiry. During Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron responded to a Labour MP’s question about a February speech made Education Secretary Michael Gove, where Mr Gove elaborated that the inquiry was creating a “chilling atmosphere”, and damaging press freedom. The Prime Minister said:

“It was right to set up the Leveson inquiry, and that is a decision fully supported by the entire Government, but I think my right honourable friend [Gove] is making an important point, which is this: even as this inquiry goes on, we want to have a vibrant press that feels it can call the powerful to account, and we do not want to see it chilled — and although sometimes one may feel some advantage in having it chilled, that is not what we want.”

The phone hacking scandal has ripped through the News of the World and damaged Rupert Murdoch’s personal reputation. Will the scandal also eventually limit our free press? (Photo thanks to World Economic Forum, found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/worldeconomicforum/374716426/sizes/o/in/photostream/)

Leveson’s response to the vocal apprehensions over his inquiry has been extraordinary. The Mail on Sunday’s headline had claimed Lord Justice Leveson wanted to quit the entire inquiry over Mr Gove’s comments, though the BBC has called this “inaccurate”. However, he had briefly wanted to call an emergency hearing over the Mail on Sunday’s headline, but rejected it due to onerous costs on the taxpayer and the inquiry’s core participants. Furthermore, Leveson declared open irritation at Mr Gove, snapping at him in the inquiry: “Mr Gove. I do not need to be told about the importance of freedom of speech, I really don’t.” Following Leveson’s complaints, the first chill has shuddered through government ministers, who cannot publicly mention the Leveson inquiry again before its conclusion. This is a terrible imposition by an unelected judge onto elected ministers.

Last July, David Cameron established the Leveson Inquiry with the remit to investigate the relationship between the press, the police and politicians, addressing “the culture, practices and ethics of the press, including contacts and the relationships between national newspapers and politicians, and the conducts of each.” Despite its vast outlook, politicians and celebrities have called upon the Leveson inquiry to investigate various vagaries of the press, including Page 3 Girls, limitations on press ownership, and accusations of political sleaze. Henry Porter of The Observer even described the inquiry in the following terms: “With the expulsion of Rupert Murdoch from our national life, we have a glorious opportunity for meaningful reform: let’s seize it.” The cacophony of calls for the Leveson inquiry to investigate into areas far beyond its remit shows that it is a separate mechanism for lobbyists and advocates to attempt to enact significant changes and restrictions on the press, circumventing democratic debate.

The Prime Minister called the inquiry after revelations over the case of Milly Dowler, then a missing teenager, later found dead; a private investigator working for News International had hacked her phone. The headline claim of The Guardian was that the investigator had deleted voicemail messages on her phone, and so given her family a flutter of false hope. This claim was incorrect, and The Guardian later retracted this accusation, whilst the excoriation echoed on. The thought of tapping into the messages of a dead teenager will repulse many people, but that is why such acts are already illegal. Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator hired by News International, was sentenced to six months in prison in 2007. Most limitations on accessing information have a ‘public interest’ defence, allowing journalists to investigate into politicians and other murky affairs, aware they may be breaking laws but with supreme justification. It is up to the twelve men and women of the jury to decide if the journalist’s actions are in the ‘public interest’, not by Leveson or politicians beforehand.

News International has been under the most scrutiny of any newspaper group by the Leveson inquiry, even being named in the inquiry’s terms of reference. This is despite the Information Commissioner’s Office revealing that News International was only the third most involved newspaper in illegally accessing private information. Their activities are eclipsed by the Trinity Mirror Group, who own the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror, and Associated Newspapers, who run the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday. The emphasis on News International is due to three factors: the particularly egregious cases that News International is responsible for, such as hacking the phones of Milly Dowler and members of the Royal Family; the prevailing popularity of its newspapers and the belief that News International wields piercing power over the British political process.

Leveson claims his support for press freedom is resolute, but has made clear that he will not recommend continuing under self-regulation with the Press Complaints Commission, stating: “It won’t do just to tinker around the edges.” He said further: “That’s not to say there couldn’t be some sort of independent mechanism that deals with complaints, regulation and resolution of disputes.” This proposed new body, a rejuvenated Press Complaints Commission, would be fortified by a “statutory underpinning”, according to Jeremy Hunt MP, the Secretary of State for Culture and Media. To ensure obedience, Mr Hunt approved of The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s suggestion, that only those publications that agreed to the new rules would be legally defined as newspapers, and hence able to claim a zero rate of VAT. Under such proposals, the government would be levying a fee on publications that refused to submit to the re-born regulator.

The most horrendous cases of phone hacking have been forged into a destructive damnation against all the sins of the tabloid press, with the Leveson Inquiry being its show-trial. These hacking cases were exposed to the world, despite the flaws in its original report, by the journalist Nick Davies. It demonstrates that press freedom is self-balancing, with each media outlet seeking the mistakes and scandals found nestling in the other outlets.

The Leveson Inquiry opened with the oldest question in politics: “Who guards the guardians?” It is easy to talk of ‘the press’ or ‘the media’ as if it were a single and homogenous conglomerate, but really there are many newspapers, magazines and broadcasters, each with their own outlook on the world. The guardians guard themselves, but few are judging the judge.

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