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.

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

Fleet Street. Photo: Getty

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.)

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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