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

Getty
Show Hide image

How Jeremy Corbyn and an Arsenal player roasted Piers Morgan… in Spanish

Muy burn.

As if politics in the UK wasn’t spicy enough, watch what happens when you do it in Spanish.

It all started when backward ham Piers Morgan complained in a piece for the Mail that Jeremy Corbyn and his wife froze him out of a conversation with the Arsenal player Héctor Bellerín at the GQ Awards:

“Later, fellow Arsenal fan Jeremy Corbyn came over to speak to him. When I tried to interrupt, the Labour leader – whose wife is Mexican – promptly switched to fluent Spanish to shut me out of the conversation.

‘What did you tell him?’ I asked.

Corbyn smirked. ‘I told him to please send Arsène Wenger my very best and assure him he continues to have my full support, even if he’s lost yours, Piers. In fact, particularly because he’s lost yours…’

A keen-eyed tweeter picked up the passage about speaking Spanish, and the anecdote went viral:


So viral, in fact, that Bellerín himself commented on the story in a tweet saying, “Come on mate, don’t take it personally” to Morgan – punctuated masterfully with a crying laughing emoji.


Then the Labour leader himself joined in the great burning ceremony, replying to the thread in full Spanish:


His response translates as:

“It was nice to meet you. It’s better that we don’t tell him what we were talking about, he wouldn’t understand. Well-played in the game on Sunday.”

And muy buen juego to you too, El Jez.

I'm a mole, innit.