More than a week after the Guardian joined the Daily Mail and the Murdoch papers in applauding the government’s cancellation of the second part of the Leveson Inquiry, the paper still has not produced any argument to justify its position.
That is not to say that it has remained silent: its investigations editor, Nick Hopkins, its former media editor, Jane Martinson, and an occasional columnist, Roy Greenslade, have all had their say, prominently and generously. Yet not one produced a justification for what 21 media and politics academics (including me) described in a letter to the paper as a fourfold betrayal – of the victims, of the public, of its journalists and of its heritage.
The initial editorial justifying the Guardian’s stance, analysed here, did not begin to explain how a newspaper that claims to be committed to human rights, justice and constitutional conduct came to endorse the cancellation of a public inquiry into the proven wrongdoings of its own industry – a decision, moreover, that was made by a minority government in the teeth of the well-argued protests of that inquiry’s chairman and of the political parties that were partners in setting it up.
The best the Guardian’s editorial writers could muster was this: ‘. . . Leveson 2 would ultimately end up like a driver learning to steer by looking in the rear-view mirror at the road behind rather than the one ahead.’ That is an argument against any attempt to learn from the past. As the judges might put it, it is without merit.
Another meritless argument
Nick Hopkins, given centre-page space on the day after the academics’ letter in an apparent effort to shore up the Guardian’s position, only dug the hole deeper.
He wrote: ‘The casual aligning of arguments (if you oppose Leveson 2, you are betraying victims of phone hacking) has rather overshadowed the practical consequences.’ And those consequences could include ‘the strangulation of legitimate investigative journalism’.
As with the rear-view mirror, this is meritless, not least because it incorrectly and unjustifiably conflates the issue of Leveson 2 with the separate matters of Section 40 and press regulation (of which more below).
Leveson 2 is a public inquiry. Its job is to find out how so many newspapers came to be involved in large-scale criminal activity over so many years and then ‘to consider the implications for the relationships between newspaper organisations and the police, prosecuting authorities, and relevant regulatory bodies – and to recommend what actions, if any, should be taken’.
It is very hard indeed to imagine why a judge, having reviewed the history of press criminality and management failure, would recommend as a remedy the strangling of investigative journalism, and if Hopkins has any grounds to believe that is a real risk he should explain them. And it is worth remembering that even if such an improbable recommendation were made it would have to win the approval, after public debate, of both houses of Parliament, so it would remain a very distant threat.
Nowhere did Hopkins address the problem of protecting the public from harm, which, alongside protecting journalistic freedom, has always been at the heart of the Leveson process. Nor did he explain, in his capacity as investigations editor, why, since the retirement of Nick Davies, the Guardian has abandoned the investigation of wrongdoing in the press. If the press won’t investigate the press and a public inquiry is not allowed to investigate the press either, who is supposed to challenge this corrupt and corrupting culture?
On successive Mondays on the Guardian’s media pages Martinson and Greenslade have also enjoyed the space to discuss these matters at length, and neither raised a squeak of protest at the paper’s decision about Leveson 2. That is to say, neither challenged the propriety of the Guardian, of all newspapers, endorsing the cancellation of a public inquiry into crime in its own industry. (What would the Guardian say about a construction company opposing the Grenfell Tower inquiry?)
Both commentators, instead, preferred to bang on about Max Mosley, whose name has been thrown into this debate by the Daily Mail in a blatant act of distraction. (Here I declare an interest. Read this.)
Martinson and Greenslade don’t like Mosley and that is their right. You might, however, expect them to explain why they think Mosley’s views are relevant to the issues they are writing about. You might also expect them to explain why it is appropriate to adopt the Daily Mail’s position on this without mentioning that the Mail is happy even today to express the views it professes to deplore when they are connected to Mosley.
Here we come to Section 40, a vital part of the Leveson settlement that was approved by all parties in Parliament in 2013 but then (like Leveson 2) was unilaterally shelved by the Tories.
<>The Guardian and its media writers long ago adopted the rhetoric of the government, the Mail and the Murdoch press on this. The paper frequently misrepresents Section 40 as punitive and draconian and it never, ever, mentions to its readers the<> ability of this measure to deliver, for us all, a new right of access to affordable justice in libel and privacy – ending the scandal under which only the rich can normally uphold their rights.
Instead, in line with the Daily Mail argument, Guardian writers link Section 40 with the views of Mosley even though they know that he could never have any influence over the operation of that measure.
They know that although Mosley’s family charity indirectly funded Impress, the Leveson-standard press regulator, he is barred by law from exercising influence over it. They know too that Impress has been found to be entirely independent not only by the Press Recognition Panel, but by the High Court. Indeed they know that the press case asserting that Mosley pulled Impress’s strings was dismissed by the court in the most robust terms. They just prefer to talk about Mosley than about Leveson 2.
The Guardian has yet to provide any rational justification for a decision about Leveson 2 that has outraged many of its readers. Instead its writers have clothed the issue in confusion and unjustified alarmism and hidden it behind a smokescreen of outrage about something with little or no relevance – the time-honoured tactics of the dishonest press.
Little wonder that the veteran ex-Guardian reporter David Hencke was moved to declare that his old paper should hang its head in shame.