The government must soon make its long-delayed announcement about whether to proceed with the second part of the Leveson Inquiry, looking into press wrongdoing and who is to blame. Both the government and the corporate press have a long record of dishonesty on this subject, so here are 10 frequently-repeated lies to look out for in the debate, and two questions to bear in mind.
Lie 1: ‘It’s all been dealt with already’
It hasn’t. The terms of reference for the inquiry were very clear about what should be done in the first part and what in the second, and the tasks for the second part were in many ways the more serious. They involve establishing how far the managements of press corporations and of the police failed in their duties and whether politicians were implicated. Only by addressing these questions can we hope to break the pattern of history in which press abuses come around again and again.
Lie 2: ‘It’s about the past, not the future’
Only a public inquiry can clear the smell of corruption surrounding our big national newspaper companies, where criminality and the denial of wrongdoing continue to surface. And only by clearing the air can we hope to rebuild trust in journalism, which is at a desperately low level but which is essential for the future. Nor is this just about print newspapers: it is all directly relevant to online news publishers, as Leveson and Parliament envisaged.
Lie 3. ‘The press has learned the lessons of Leveson 1’
Regrettably no lessons have been learned. The national press has rejected both the 2012 Leveson recommendations and the Royal Charter arrangements subsequently agreed by all parties in Parliament. More than that, many papers have openly denigrated and attempted to ridicule the inquiry and its legacy. Though the Leveson Report declared the press bosses’ plans for a new regulator to be inadequate, they went ahead and set one up on precisely that blueprint, conforming to what Leveson warned was ‘a pattern of cosmetic reform’.
Lie 4: ‘The criminal trials sorted out all the illegality issues’
They didn’t. There were a number of trials but they were naturally narrowly focused, so general problems were not addressed. Two examples. In the bribery cases public officials receiving bribes were jailed but the journalists who corrupted them and their superiors were largely untouched. Is that right? And in separate hacking trials bosses claimed they had no idea what their employees were doing while underlings blamed the bosses. The truth remains unclear. Both of these are matters for Leveson 2.
Lie 5. ‘Leveson himself doesn’t want it’
The claim has been made that Sir Brian Leveson ‘had no appetite’ for Leveson 2. There is no evidence for this and the judge issued a statement saying he had not commented on the matter. What we do know is that before Christmas the judge asserted his statutory right to issue an opinion on the future of the inquiry, and that is awaited. According to legal sources it is also unlikely that he would personally chair Leveson 2 since he is now in a more senior post, but this does not prevent another judge taking up the second part of the Inquiry.
Lie 6. ‘It’s part of a plot to gag the press’
The protection of freedom of expression was built into the terms of reference of the Leveson Inquiry and both the recommendations of Part 1 and the measures adopted by Parliament took great pains to ensure that news publishers were subject to no prior restraint in publishing news and opinions. There are no grounds whatever to believe that Leveson 2 – which does not deal with regulatory matters in any case – could or would behave differently. And whatever it recommends will be only that: recommendations. Parliament will decide, as it should in a matter where protection of the public is concerned.
Lie 7. ‘Too much time has passed’
Delay was always foreseen. It was well known to everyone involved in Leveson 1 and to everyone in Parliament at that time that there would be a substantial delay before Leveson 2 could begin. All of the many criminal proceedings relating to press wrongdoing had to run their complete course, including appeals. That milestone was reached more than a year ago, so the delay now is down to the government. Many of those who were in charge in the industry when it all began are still there and no substantive reforms or fundamental changes of attitude have taken place within the industry, so Leveson 2 is as necessary as it was in 2011.
Lie 8: ‘It’s old hat now because of the Internet and fake news’
On the contrary, it is more relevant than ever. The big newspaper companies are leaders in news provision online and likely to remain so for many years, so questions about whether they are responsibly managed will continue to be very important. And in the fight against fake news, trustworthy sources of information are vital. Again, only an effective public inquiry can clear the stink of corruption that surrounds these companies.
Lie 9: ‘It’s too expensive’
Actually, it’s cheap. Leveson 1 cost £4.5m [Correction 11 Jan: this should read £5.4m], which represents extremely good value for money given that it involved a significant number of professional people for more than a year. Many public inquiries cost more and have had far less public impact. There is no reason to assume that Leveson 2 would be expensive. [The correction does not alter the point: Leveson was cheaper than Chilcot, Soham, Mid Staffs Hospital, Bloody Sunday…]
Lie 10: ‘The government has a choice to make’
Actually it shouldn’t be exercising a choice. It could and should have treated the launch of Leveson 2 as a matter of routine as soon as the last relevant criminal case was finished. Ethically this would have been right since anything else involved politicians meddling in journalism – something that ideally is avoided wherever possible. Instead the government chose to intervene and make a case for deferral because it was asked to do so by its friends in the corporate press. The interests of the public were thus relegated to second place.
Now . . . Two questions worth asking
Question 1. Why is the press industry so reluctant to see Leveson 2 go ahead?
It’s difficult to see any other answer to this than that they are afraid of what might be uncovered. Events involving the Sun, the Mirror and others already show, for example, that our knowledge of criminal activities at national newspapers is incomplete. We also have only a sketchy knowledge of the conduct of managements in relation to these things. Those who know the true extent of illegal and improper press conduct should now be asked about it.
Question 2. What happened to the principle of cross-party consensus in addressing press matters?
In 2011-13 politicians explicitly and proudly adopted a policy of cross-party cooperation and negotiation in all matters to do with Leveson. They jointly agreed the terms of reference before Leveson 1 and they jointly negotiated and agreed on how to implement the recommendations. The reasons for this were very sound. No one party should make policy on a matter so central to freedom of expression, which is so vital to democracy. Equally, joint action reduces the chance that individual parties are exposed to pressure from the press or to other corrupt arrangements. On both counts public confidence in decisions is enhanced. The Conservatives, however, have not only chosen to go it alone on this, but are also openly at odds with the wishes of all the other main parties.