The Leveson Inquiry was set up to examine the culture, practices and ethics of the media. The process has delivered a series of troubling revelations as well as complex dilemmas that have yet to be resolved.
To resource the engagement of the Christian community we held a single-issue Church and Media Forum on Wednesday 23rd May. The Forum provided a briefing for church leaders and communicators to help them understand and respond to The Leveson Inquiry. The text of the address is set out below.
Understanding and responding to Leveson
Over the past 18 months there has been a series of revelations about the integrity of the press, and about the relationship between journalists, politicians and the police. The things we have learnt have raised a host of questions about the way the print media operates in the UK. Perhaps more importantly, there are questions about how the media needs to be reformed and what part regulation has to play in it.
There are several good accounts of the events leading up to the Leveson Inquiry. The Guardian has produced a very useful “What happened When?” infographic, which you can find here. This briefing is intended to help the Christian community to understand what has happened, what it means and how we might respond to it.
The Leveson process
The Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press is running in four modules.
• Module 1 looked at the relationship between the press and the public and looks at phone-hacking and other potentially illegal behaviour.
• Module 2 looked at the relationships between the press and police and the extent to which that has operated in the public interest.
• Module 3 is the one we’re currently in. It’s looking at the relationship between press and politicians, and it will run to the end of June 2012.
• Module 4 will start in early July 2012, and will take submissions on what press policy and regulation should look like in future. Lord Justice Leveson intends to finish the formal part of the Inquiry by the end of July.
The Inquiry has asked for submissions from interested parties on the future of regulation. To help this process, the Inquiry has set out some Draft Criteria for an effective Regulatory Regime and is asking for comments. It has also set out a series of Key Questions for Module 4 relating to the public interest and press ethics. These documents can be found here
The Inquiry will be considering issues related to Module 4 until the 15 July but due to the very large volume of evidence they are receiving, they have asked for submissions by 29th June 2012.
After that Lord Leveson will start work with a panel of six assessors to review the process. He will deliver a report making recommendations for policy and regulation of the press. The balance he has to strike is to support the integrity and freedom of the press whilst also cleaning out the stables, encouraging the highest ethical standards.
At present the expectation is that his report will be completed by the end of September 2012, when it will be delivered to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. It will make specific recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance.
It is important to note that, as with all inquiries, no-one is required to act on the Leveson Report. It has no statutory force. What that means is that the publication of the Leveson Report will be the beginning of an intense period of public debate. There are very powerful vested interests at work – politicians, the police, business interests and the press - and they will be fighting at that stage over what is to be done.
The other powerful force is what you might call civil society – those voluntary bodies and individuals who have a stake in the way things are done. That includes the churches, and also trade unions, the academic community, lobby groups, local communities and of course individuals. It will be fantastically important that people who care about the state of the press act and act together this Autumn as new standards and processes are put in place that will shape the press for years to come.
What other enquiries are under way?
For the sake of completeness it’s important to mention the other enquiries that are also underway in this area.
The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee
The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee – a cross-party group of MPs, held its own enquiry into News International and phone hacking, which was published on 1st May. It was highly critical of the role played by Rupert Murdoch and his son James Murdoch in the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. It concluded that James Murdoch showed 'wilful ignorance' of the extent of phone hacking during 2009 and 2010. There was a split in the committee over whether Rupert Murdoch is ‘a fit person' to lead a major international company. Most of the report was unanimous. The disputed “fit person” clause is important because OFCOM, the broadcasting regulator, will eventually be asked to decide whether News Corp is “a fit and proper person” to holds a broadcasting license. The Labour members of the committee were trying to send OFCOM a strong hint.
Metropolitan Police investigations
There are currently three Metropolitan Police investigations underway.
Operation Weeting is investigating phone hacking. More than 20 journalists have been arrested so far, all of them bailed.
Operation Elveden is investigating illicit payments to police officers. More than 22 journalists and a police officer have been arrested so far, all of them bailed.
Operation Tuleta is investigating computer hacking. 3 people arrested so far.
All three police investigations are led by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers – though she has announced that she will be retiring in the Autumn before the investigations are complete.
Motorman could be described as “the enquiry that isn’t happening.” It may however prove to be more significant than Leveson.
Following an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), private detective Steve Whittamore pleaded guilty In February 2004 with three others to conspiring to commit misconduct in public office. Whittamore had worked for journalists to gain illicit information from the DVLA, banks, phone and credit card companies. His primary tool was “blagging” – simply pretending to be someone he wasn’t. He received a conditional discharge. During the investigation a huge cache of documents revealed, in precise detail, a network of police and public employees illegally selling personal information obtained from government computer systems. The personal information that Whittamore obtained from his network was passed on to journalists working for various newspapers including the News of the World, the Sunday Times, the Observer, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror. At least 305 different reporters have been identified as customers of the network.
However the Information Commissioner has declined to publish this information, Lord Leveson hasn’t requested it, in spite of the fact that Whittamore continued to use and sell information until at least 2010.
The significance of Motorman is that it implicates a much wider network of journalists, newspapers and public officials in illegal activities. Perhaps it’s no surprise that few papers are reporting it.
What issues are arising?
The relationship between press, police, politicians
Each of these agencies is extremely powerful, and has a claim to primacy in some areas. The relationship between them is a fine balance to make sure that the one doesn’t exploit the other, and to guarantee that they do not collude in ways that make them unduly powerful. The press needs freedom to investigate and publish ideas that politicians might not welcome. The police must be free to pursue criminals without fear or favour. And politicians must be accountable first and foremost to the electorate. The Leveson Inquiry has demonstrated that politicians, police and the press have related to each other in ways that interfered with the primacy in these areas. So, for instance, when the CMS Select Committee summoned Rebekah Brooks in 2009 she refused to appear. The committee took no action. Several MPs have since said that they were anxious that if they angered her, they would be personally targeted by the News of the World.
How can we ensure that all of these agencies are free to do the work they should, but don’t exploit the power they have for their own ends?
Most people would feel that those who exercise great power on our behalf need to be open to scrutiny. We should at least be told the truth about what they are doing. Transparency is the first step to this – and the revelations of the past few months have revealed a worrying lack of it.
Concentration of media ownership
For members of the public to make wise choices about who or what to believe (for instance who to support at elections) they need to be able to compare points of view. If all our news and information comes from a single source we are vulnerable to exploitation. We need a diverse and free press as a public watchdog, and as a medium of debate. So plurality in news and other media are important. But at present our major sources of news and entertainment are controlled by a relatively small number of companies and individuals. For example, Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers are read by 39% of newspaper audience. In addition his companies own 40% of Sky News, and would like to own the rest too, if the Competition Commission will agree to it.
There are various proposals to limit the share of the total media market that can be controlled by any one company or individual. But it’s difficult to see how this could be enforced. You could set a limit on the share of the audience that one company can reach. But that would create a disincentive to build the business. You could set a limit on the income a company can receive. For instance, the group Media Reform has proposed that no individual should be able to control more than 15% of the total revenue of the UK’s core media system. That would mean that Rupert Murdoch would have to choose between monopolising Britain’s Pay TV system and controlling Britain’s largest press group. But in a converging media, which markets should be included in the assessment? Is it fair to say that because a company owns a lot of local newspapers, they are debarred from entering the video games market? Where do you draw the line?
Regulation to protect the public
Most people would feel that members of the public (including celebrities) have some right to privacy. Most would also feel they have some right to reply if a newspaper has treated them badly. There is no statutory mechanism (apart from the law of libel) to ensure that people who are mistreated by a newspaper can have redress.
The Press Complaints Commission was established in 1990 after a series of breaches of privacy by newspapers produced a public call for effective regulation. It is run by journalists, has no legal powers, and covers only those papers who choose to take part in it. The PCC was initially given 18 months mandate to see whether a voluntary body could deliver satisfactory redress. It is now widely acknowledged that the PCC has failed to deliver the standards required. It is clear that it will come to an end this year. Lord Leveson will make recommendations for a replacement body. Amongst the key questions for his Inquiry are what that body should look like. Should it have legal powers? Should it cover all newspapers, whether or not they want to join? What kind of sanctions should it be able to exercise?
Some people are looking to the model of OFCOM, which regulates the broadcasting and telecomms industries. (OFCOM has made it clear that it doesn’t want to regulate the press as well.)
There is a further need for legal protection for journalists who find themselves at odds with the editorial line of their employers.
The failing economic model of news
A major driving factor of the current ethical crisis is the failing economic model of news. Newspapers that have found themselves competing ruthlessly for audiences have sometimes resorted to unethical practices to get the “big” exclusive story.
Newspaper sales are falling, partly because of the rise of the internet as a source of news and comment. Amongst the national papers, only the Daily Mail and The Telegraph now make a profit. The Guardian is effectively run as a charity. Rupert Murdoch might argue that the British establishment is showing ingratitude for his personal subsidy of our most-read national papers.
Another area where market failure has become acute is the local newspaper industry. Local papers have lost readership and advertising revenue to the internet. 242 local newspapers have closed since 2005. Sales have fallen 41% in the past three years. In the last year ten daily papers have gone weekly. Almost all local papers are now owned by one of four companies; Trinity Mirror, Northcliffe, Newsquest (an American company) and Johnstone. To create economies the newsdesks of many papers are being merged, so that even if a town has its own newspaper, it may be produced thirty or forty miles away. Why does this matter? Because local papers have a civic role. For instance they report on crime and hold local politicians to account. Some local authorities now produce their own free newspapers. These have a role in providing information – but of course they are unlikely to expose wrong-doing in the local authority in the way that an independent newspaper can.
In the face of this, some new forms of news media are emerging. In some areas hyper-local publications, in print or online, provide a way forward. These are the civic equivalent of the parish magazine. They are often low-cost, single journalist operations, sometimes run as charities or co-operatives. The Christian community might want to support or even start such operations.
Some have argued that local and hyper-local news needs financial support. This might come in the form of levies on the digital or telecoms industries, which could be used to support start-ups and the training of journalists.
How can the Christian community engage?
When Lord Leveson publishes his report and recommendations in the Autumn they are unlikely to be immediately and widely accepted. Instead he will fire the starting gun for a tussle between press, politicians and other interested parties over what kind of bodies need to be established and what legal powers they will have. It will be crucially important that civil society plays a part in developments at this stage. The Christian community has a key role to play.
In practice we need to engage with other organisations, such as The Coordinating Committee for Media Reform. They have made detailed proposals for anti-monopoly measures at national and local level, the revival of local media and press regulation that works.
The Church and Media Network is ready to coordinate and advise Christian groups who wish to engage in this process.
Some useful links
The Coordinating Committee for Media Reform
Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom
The Leveson Inquiry
Andrew Graystone is the Director of the Church and Media Network