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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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