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.)

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.