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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.