Leveson proposes, Cameron disposes

Whenever anyone claims that the British press has moved into a new ethical period because of Leveson and so no new legislation is required, remember David Rose of the Daily Mail and the ugly, libellous, hatchet-job he did on Steven Messham.

Tomorrow's chip paper - Cameron dismisses LevesonI wish Leveson had published his report at eight in the morning rather than lunchtime – I could have written this blog before Question Time. But Question Time was illuminating – the BBC chose four grey men in grey suits, and Michael Rosen for the BBC Extra Guest, and the only one who could speak about media sexism from her personal experience on the panel was Charlotte Church: and while better MPs had evidently fled in terror, Church shone. She was easily the most articulate and most intelligent panellist tonight: if the BBC don’t ask her back, sexism has trumped sense. (As it so often does.)

Of the other panellists, Patrick McLoughlin had reason to object to an inquisitive press: his MP expenses were exposed in 2009. Chris Bryant is another of the home-flipping MPs who decides which place is his “second home” depending on how much he can claim in expenses. Simon Jenkins used to edit the Times and the London Standard as well as write for the Guardian. And Neil Wallis used to be executive editor of News of the World, leaving a comfortable two years before Rupert Murdoch tried to shut down all the bad talk about phone hacking by sacking everyone except Rebekah Wade. Neil Wallis and Rebekah Wade were arrested in July 2011.

And Charlotte Church, who wrote in her testimony to Leveson that she had “always thought that there was little point in fighting the press as it would only make matters worse” and noted:

Perhaps I am a little cynical, but since the age of 13 I have thought that the media were trying to apply the stereotypical narrative of “the child star who goes off the rails” to me, willing me to fulfil that narrative in the worst way. The reality is far more mundane and whilst I don’t want to pretend to be something I am not, the fact is that my behaviour has followed a reasonably typical pattern for a teenage girl and then a young woman who would occasionally go out with her friends and enjoy herself.

(Though if you’re a journalist, apparently your reaction to Charlotte Church feeling betrayed by her friends is to laugh merrily about how willing they were to sell her out. The same journalist, whom I mostly like, by the way, wrote a terribly wounded column about how gosh, if Leveson gets his way, there’ll be nothing but approved news.)

Neil Wallis blandly claimed on Question Time that Rupert Murdoch’s shutting down News of the World and fire all the employees (except Rebekah Wade) was proof that self-regulation worked. Wallis had done public relations work for the Metropolitan Police (before they arrested him), and it would take chutzpah like that to be in PR for the Met: chutzpah that lets Rupert Murdoch and News International rather openly lobby for continued self-regulation.

Let’s be clear: a media business is in the marketplace to sell “news”. “News” can constitute almost anything that can be sold, as far as our press barons are concerned. David Cameron has no reason to stand up to them and every reason to cower. The Tories will lose the next General Election: it’s merely a question of how badly they will lose. For Cameron to give further affront to men like Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black would be downright foolish of him – principled, but foolish. Cameron is neither.

He is, as the evidence at the inquiry made clear, the latest embodiment of a time-honored tradition in which British governments of the day seek to curry favor with Fleet Street’s press barons. In his case, of course, he went as far as hiring a former editor of the News of the World, the notorious and now defunct scandal sheet that was at the heart of the scandal, as his press secretary.

To be sure, the revelations about Cameron’s pusillanimity have done him great damage. (In his testimony to Leveson, Murdoch revealed that the P.M.’s officials asked him to use the back door to Downing Street whenever he went there so that his frequent visits wouldn’t be noticed.) But politics is politics. With another general election likely in a couple of years, and with his Conservative Party lagging badly in the polls, Cameron will be keen to secure the enthusiastic support of the traditional Tory newspapers—the Telegraph, the Mail, the Express—all of which are vehemently opposed to outside regulation. And although he won’t proclaim it loudly, he will also be seeking the support of Murdoch’s remaining titles—the Sun and the Times.

Judging from Fleet Street’s reaction to today’s news, he has made a promising start. After his appearance in the Commons, the Web site of the Telegraph gleefully proclaimed: “Cameron Defies Leveson Over Press Laws,” and its columnists faithfully followed the company line. The Prime Minister is “right and brave,” wrote one. “Legislate in haste, repent at leisure,” wrote another. At the home page of the Times, the coverage was more balanced—“Battle lines drawn over the future of the press”—but Murdoch’s man in London, Tom Mockridge, the chief executive of News International, didn’t hide his pleasure at Cameron’s obfuscations. “As a company we are keen to play our full part, with others in our industry, in creating a new body that commands the confidence of the public,” Mockridge said in a statement. “We believe that this can be achieved without statutory regulation—and welcome the prime minister’s rejection of that proposal.”

Of course he does, and of course they all do. The full Leveson report (An inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press: executive summary and recommendations) is quite massive, and no, I have not yet read it – but I have read the executive summary and recommendations.

Put simply, at the moment, the ordinary person has no real defense against a major newspaper that decides to publish something about them that isn’t true. A free press means there is no prior regulation of what anyone publishes – but post-publication, the law applies. Still, as Juliet Shaw found when she took on the Daily Mail, as Steven Messham certainly knows while David Rose grunts out a libellous article about a man too poor to hire libel lawyers, as the families of Hillsborough 96 and the survivors know, suing a newspaper costs a lot of money – more money than most people have – takes a significant amount of time, and even if you win, won’t necessarily get you the public retraction needed to clear your name. A man as wealthy as Lord McAlpine, or Cyril Smith, or Jimmy Savile, can use libel law to silence critics (not that these three men have anything else in common, I hasten to add) but most of us aren’t that rich.

If you try to sue a newspaper like the Daily Mail for libel, the newspaper can afford to hire better and more expensive lawyers than you and can follow the strategy of threatening you with a countersuit which will mean you will pay their legal fees, as Juliet Shaw found:

In response to my original claim for defamation, the Daily Mail brought a claim against me citing that I had no prospect of success and proposing that my claim be thrown out. This meant that instead of Associated Newspapers responding to my grievances, I was forced to defend myself to them and prove that I had been wronged. They also applied for me to pay their costs.

What Leveson has proposed is an independent self-regulatory body, under an independent Trust Board, independently funded, transparently run, which must be able to:

hear individual complaints against its members about breach of its standards and order appropriate redress while encouraging individual newspapers to embrace a more rigorous process for dealing with complaints internally; take an active role in promoting high standards, including having the power to investigate serious or systemic breaches and impose appropriate sanctions; and provide a fair, quick and inexpensive arbitration service to deal with any civil law claims based upon its members’ publications.

Sanctions could include, Leveson suggests, fining a newspaper up to 1% of its turnover or up to one million pounds. Steven Messham should be able to report David Rose to this self-regulatory body, which would look at Rose’s article, conclude (I would hope) that it was a horrible hatchet job designed merely to attack a man who was a victim of sexual abuse, and fine the Daily Mail something significant for having published it. If a future journalist was asked to write such an article and said no, because it’s unethical (the National Union of Journalists has been first and foremost calling for better press regulation) then the newspaper’s management shouldn’t be able to fire the journalist for abiding by the code of conduct.

Leveson also suggests as a further incentive, that since any newspaper who won’t sign up to be regulated by this independent body has chosen not to resolve problems quickly and inexpensively by arbitration, if that holdout newspaper is sued for libel, even if they win they ought not to be able to claim their legal costs from the loser. That would make it cheaper for victims of this kind of press to sue the newspaper, and more expensive for the newspaper to libel or harass people.

Would that happen if the independent body was legislated for, if it had real teeth and if newspapers with national circulation were encouraged to join it by kite marks to prove they are a responsible press, that they don’t want to libel or attack people and are prepared to put things right if it appears they did?

Who knows? David Cameron wants things to stay as they are. He’s afraid of what the newspaper barons will have their feifs write about him if he takes action.

In the last years of John Major’s government (1992-1997) the Tories were hanging on to power with the help of a small handful of Democratic Unionist Party MPs. It now appears that while Major’s government had been in secret negotiations with the IRA and Sinn Fein that would eventually become the peace process, Major wouldn’t take action because he was afraid the DUP MPs would stop voting with the Tories. Labour won in 1997 and Tony Blair therefore gets the credit of being the Prime Minister at the helm when the Good Friday agreement was signed.

Similarly, I think David Cameron will find himself on the wrong side of history on this one. To his credit, it seems that Ed Miliband sees that.

But we can agree at least: For a newspaper or its owner to agree that you will not harass people who have done nothing to deserve mobbing by the press, to agree that you will not publish untrue or damaging statements about anyone even if they can’t afford a libel lawyer, and to be willing to have a self-regulatory body that can and does penalise newspapers and their employees if they do – this is not stifling the freedom of the press. It merely puts national newspapers in the awkward position of having to care about ordinary people as if they mattered as human beings, not merely as objects to be used for selling papers.

Other reading:

Steve Coogan:

Let’s not forget it was the prime minister who called for the inquiry in the first place, and that it was he who said that, unless the recommendations produced were “bonkers”, they would be acted on. But now David Cameron is playing a despicable political game: disingenuous at best, bare-faced lying at worst. By rejecting Leveson’s call for statutory regulation, Cameron has hung the victims of crime out to dry. He has passed on the opportunity to make history. He has revealed there isn’t an ounce of substance in his body, that he has one eye on courting the press for elections in years to come, and doesn’t know the meaning of conviction. Quite simply, if future regulation is not backed by statute, Leveson’s report is nothing more than a large slap on the wrist. But this is a price Cameron is prepared to pay, because it is not the victims of crime who will get him re-elected.

Who once hath stood through the loaded hour
Ere, roaring like the gale,
The Harrild and the Hoe devour
Their league-long paper-bale,
And has lit his pipe in the morning calm
That follows the midnight stress–
He hath sold his heart to the old Black Art
We call the daily Press.

The envoi is from Rudyard Kipling’s short story “The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat” where an MP, a journalist, a newspaper proprietor, and the owner of a chain of music halls, combine in force to destroy the reputation of a local magnate and MP.

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Filed under In The Media, Rudyard Kipling, Women

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