Lessons from Leveson

Ignorance is no excuse.

If we have learned one thing from the first part of the Leveson Inquiry, it is this: for the first decade of this century there was a culture of casual lawlessness on many of the news and show-business desks in Fleet Street.

Part of this can be put down to new technology. It was relatively easy to listen to telephone messages or to guess the answers to security questions for email accounts. It was not much harder to use a "Trojan horse" email attachment or to "blag" a record of calls from a mobile telephone company. And it certainly was not difficult to pay a specialist private investigator to do any of these unlawful things.

There was also ignorance of the relevant laws. Ignorance doesn't excuse anyone from liability for criminal acts, but it helps explain the culture of unethical behaviour. A generation of reporters and in-house lawyers, fully aware of the technicalities of libel and contempt, appear to have had no real idea of technology law.

Few seemed to know that interfering with someone's email account, let alone using an intrusive Trojan horse programme, was a breach of the Computer Misuse Act 1990. In the Nightjack case, where a reporter unmasked a blogger after hacking his email, even the experienced former legal manager of the Times freely admitted that he had no idea of the existence of the act or the offences it details.

Such a culture is what can develop in business when "self-regulation" is non-existent. The sorts of ethical restraints that can come from professionalism or just good leadership are easily ignored under the pressure of deadlines and bullying editors anxious to fill their paper with copy.

However, this is where technology again has an impact. The publication of news on the internet or stored in electronic archives means that journalists and their managers can remain accountable for what they publish years after the stories have gone to print. A byline is now not only a measure of achievement but also a potential curse. Any hacking can leave electronic traces long after the story has been forgotten by anyone other than the victim.

On the books

A third lesson from Leveson is that "statutory" is not a dirty word. Many in the mainstream media have a knee-jerk reaction against "statutory" regulation but do not seem to know what the word means. A statutory power is one that has its basis in legislation rather than in a contract or
a non-binding code. And a statutory power is always specific; it is a precise device to get something done.

In the Nightjack case, it was the use of statutory powers by the Leveson inquiry that uncovered the Times using computer hacking to source
a story and then misleading the High Court. Left to self-regulation none of this would ever have come out. Whatever the solution to the problems caused by the ethics and practices of the press, it is now rather clear that they are not able to sensibly regulate themselves.

David Allen Green is the New Statesman's legal correspondent

James Harding, editor of The Times newspaper, arrives at the Leveson Inquiry, 17 January 2012. Credit: Getty Images

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy

Twitter/@suttonnick
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From "cockroaches" to campaigns: how the UK press u-turned on the refugee crisis

Harrowing photos of a drowned toddler washed up on a Turkish beach have made the front pages – and changed the attitude of Britain's newspapers.

Contains distressing images.

The UK press has united in urging the government to soften its stance on the record numbers of people migrating to Europe. The reason? A series of distressing photos of the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy, face down in the sand on the Turkish coast.

Most papers decided to run one or more of these pictures on their front pages, accompanying headlines entreating David Cameron to take notice. While your mole wholeheartedly supports this message, it can't help noticing the sudden u-turn executed by certain newspapers on the subject of the refugee crisis.

First, they used to call them "foreigners" and "migrants" (a term that has rapidly lost its neutrality in the reporting of the crisis) who were flooding Europe and on the way to "swarm" the UK. Now they've discovered that these people are victims and refugees who need saving.


 

Photos: Twitter/suttonnick


The Sun went so far as to run a column by Katie Hopkins five months ago in which she referred to them as "cockroaches" and "feral humans". She wrote:

Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don't care. Because in the next minute you'll show me pictures of aggressive young men at Calais, spreading like norovirus on a cruise ship. Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches.

Photo: Twitter

Now the same paper is urging the government not to "flinch" from taking in "desperate people", those in a "life-and-death struggle not of their own making":

Photo: Twitter/@Yorkskillerby


And the Daily Mail still seems confused:

 

It's not really the time for media navel-gazing, but perhaps the papers that have only just realised the refugees' plight can look closer at the language they've been using. It may have contributed to the "dehumanising" effect for which Cameron and co are now being condemned.

I'm a mole, innit.