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What to look out for in the Leveson report

From governance to sourcing, David Allen Green outlines five key issues in the report into press practice and ethics.

Fleet Street. Photo: Getty

One: Governance

A great deal of the evidence before the Leveson Inquiry was about how newspapers were organised internally and how such arrangements facilitated or discouraged bad press practices. 

Accordingly, it will be intriguing to see how report will deal with the respective roles of editors and “managing editors” and those who oversee them.  How do you tame an autocratic editor? 

Two: Sourcing of news

The Leveson Inquiry was not really that concerned with the ultimate publication of news reports (and it deliberately did not deal with issues such as defamation).  But it was very interested in how news stories were sourced, and in particular the relationship between reporters and private investigators and other “commercial” sources.  Here it will be interesting what the report recommends to stop any illegal and unethical trade in private information.

Three: Relationships with police and public officials

What is the appropriate relationship between the media and police officers and other public officials? 

Clearly any suggestion that sourcing stories from police officers and other public officials  on a cash basis will be unacceptable.   But that leaves open the question of what should be the way journalists can properly exploit “official” sources.   Only the naïve would say that there cannot ever be any direct contact: it would be unfortunate and unsustainable to expect the news media only to use (often obstructive and uninformative) press offices. 

Four: How politicians and the press influence each other

What, if anything, can be done about the eternal tug-of-war of politicians and the press seeking to influence each other?  What sort of access should proprietors and editors have to ministers?  The Leveson Inquiry heard evidence on this point from many former senior ministers, and also from editors and proprietors themselves; but it remains unclear what, if anything, can be done to address such Realpolitik.

Five: Can regulation really make a difference?

Politicians and newspaper editors routinely call for new legislation.  In political speeches and leader columns, MPs and editors clamour almost daily to bring in some new statutory regime for something or other.  In contrast, lawyers tend to be naturally sceptical of the efficacy of any new laws.  Every solicitor and barrister will have their own examples of how a well-meaning provision did not have the intended consequence or was deftly circumvented: regulatory failure is not unusual.

Accordingly, the key question for the Leveson Inquiry is not so much the form of any regulation, but whether it can make any positive difference to the culture and practices of the press.  If there is to be regulation, it is difficult to see how it cannot have some statutory basis: otherwise, it will be regulation at the behest of the regulated, an approach which simply failed with the Press Complaints Commission regime.

But there is a problem for the Leveson Inquiry in respect of “regulation” which is more difficult to solve than as to whether it will have any statutory basis.  Before the rise of the internet, it was easy to identify who would be subject to any media regulation, as it was only a few entities which would be capable of publishing or broadcasting the news on a regular basis.  However, as now anyone with an internet connection can publish what they want to the world, how does one define who should be subject to the more onerous and restrictive burdens of being regulated? 

And if a non-regulated entity can publish what it wants (subject to the law of the land), then any sector-specific regulation would surely be futile in practical terms.  All because you think something should be regulated, it does not always mean it can be regulated.  It may well be that the internet will succeed where the alarmist hyperbole of the newspaper industry has failed, and rendered ineffective any way the press can now be regulated. 

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman