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

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.