Leveson: The latest press disinformation campaign

The noise about supposed Leveson "outrages" is getting worse, says Brian Cathcart.

Three weeks ago the great former Sunday Times editor Sir Harry Evans accused the national press of gross distortion and staggering misrepresentation in their coverage of Lord Justice Leveson’s report. Well, since then it has got a lot worse.

The papers have turned their megaphone up even louder and, using a range of distortions, misrepresentations and downright lies, they are trying to drown out all reasoned discussion of the Leveson report in the hope that it will vanish for good.

Most of the noise is not about regulation, which is the core of the report. Instead it is about other supposed Leveson outrages relating to whistleblowers, journalistic sources and other matters.

The aim is to muddy the waters around press self-regulation. Editors and proprietors want to conceal the fact that they are engaged in disreputable secret negotiations with ministers for the purpose of sabotaging Leveson.

Before looking at the misinformation campaign, we need to look at what is happening about the Leveson recommendations on regulation.

You may remember that the judge offered papers the chance to set up their own independent self-regulator. But to protect the public and ensure that this self-regulator did not just turn out to be another Press Complaints Commission, he also proposed the establishment of a "recognition body" which every three years would check that the self-regulator met various basic standards.

Although Leveson said this recognition body must be totally independent of both the press and politicians, and must be backed by statute, David Cameron promptly threw a spanner in the works by coming out against any legislation. So now instead Conservative ministers want to create the recognition body by royal charter.

They published their draft of this charter last week and it was a scandalous document, because ministers had secretly allowed editors and proprietors to rewrite it to suit their own interests. If that royal charter were adopted, the press would escape accountability.

If you were an editor you would want your readers looking elsewhere while you engaged in such a disgraceful political fix, and this is what is happening. The megaphone has been turned up, and we are having distractions shouted at us.

Now let’s deal with the distractions in turn.

1. Whistleblowers

We are told that Leveson’s proposals mean it will be harder, or even impossible, for whistleblowers to bring stories of wrongdoing to the press. This is completely false, and you can read a full explanation here. In brief, Leveson in his report declared that whistleblowing was "justified and legitimate", although he pointed out that in the case of the police service it might be a good idea if staff also had the alternative of reporting misconduct internally, rather than their only option being to go to the press. That’s it.

2. Journalistic sources

Several papers have said that Leveson’s recommendations on the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) pose a serious threat to the confidentiality of journalistic sources. Again this is a perverse reading of the report, as explained fully here. Leveson writes (part J, chapter 2, paragraph 9.3 onwards) of submissions by the Metropolitan Police making the case that under PACE "journalistic material" is too often kept beyond the reach of police officers conducting investigations. The Met suggested changes to the law.

Leveson says that since he has heard no other views on this besides the Met’s he can’t make a clear recommendation. Instead he tells the Home Office, "without pre-judging any conclusion", that it should "consider and, if necessary, consult upon" possible changes to PACE. And the Home Office has duly said it will consult, specifically inviting comments on the impact of the suggested changes on the protection of journalistic sources.

So Leveson did not recommend making it easier for police to seize documents from journalists. He said he had only heard one half of the story and gently suggested to the Home Office that it should consider getting the whole story. This the Home Office has begun doing.

3. Exemplary damages

Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for an independent press self-regulator would not compel news publishers to participate. Instead he proposed a number of sticks and carrots, including some in relation to exemplary damages in court which have been described as Draconian, illiberal and in conflict with the Human Rights Act (HRA). All of these descriptions are misguided, as is explained here. No paper that observed a self-regulator’s code, or that avoided behaving in an outrageous and illegal fashion, would ever even face the risk of such damages (which are not in themselves new). Nor, according to our legal advice and the government’s, would the proposals breach the HRA. (And if by chance editors are right in believing they breach it, then they will be able to challenge it successfully in the courts, so they have nothing to worry about.)

As a more general point, the sticks and carrots are a substitute for compelling papers to join a regulator, something that editors strongly opposed. Are they now demanding that the sticks be made of rubber?

4. Data protection

Leveson makes recommendations for reform of the Data Protection Act, which, as he demonstrated at length, has failed to protect the private information of ordinary people in the way it was supposed to. In particular, its sweeping exemptions of news organisations allowed the abuses seen in the Motorman scandal, and its feeble penalties meant not only that offences went unpunished but also that it was barely worth mounting prosecutions in the first place.

Leveson’s proposals on data protection are characterised by some newspapers and some journalists as Draconian. They are not; they are meant to protect ordinary people. Are they a threat to investigative journalism? Some say that they are, and we will no doubt find out, because the Ministry of Justice, which has responsibility for any legal changes, has said that it will consult on any amendments before taking any step towards amending the law. If there really is any threat to serious journalism in what they propose, Hacked Off will be among those opposing it.

5. Arrests of journalists

Yes, journalists continue to be arrested in the police investigations into hacking and alleged corruption. This has nothing whatever to do with Leveson, who made no comments or recommendations about active police operations in his report. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service are presumably doing their jobs, and if by any chance they are exceeding their remit they will doubtless get in trouble for it – the journalists, after all, have lawyers to represent their interests, indeed many of them have very expensive lawyers paid for by News International.

6. Arbitration

Leveson proposed an arbitration service that would give redress to ordinary people who feel they have been wronged by the press, while at the same time sparing them the effort and the vast expense of fighting a case through the courts. This simple idea is now portrayed as too expensive for newspapers, and particularly regional newspapers. This is a misunderstanding, as is explained in full here. The scheme would cost most to those papers that used it most, and those would not be regional newspapers. And it would normally spare newspapers the far higher costs of going to court. Suggestions that papers will be flooded with arbitration claims are not supported by any evidence (and they hardly say much for papers‘ confidence in the quality of their journalism).

7. The Defamation Bill

The claim is made that a hard-fought campaign for much-needed reform of our libel laws is about to be derailed by Hacked Off among others, by the use of a series of Leveson-inspired wrecking amendments to the current Defamation Bill. Nonsense again.

Hacked Off supports the Defamation Bill and we had no role whatsoever in the cross-party amendments adopted by the House of Lords that are intended to introduce parts of the Leveson recommendations. We were surprised by the terms of the amendments and in debate some sympathetic peers tried to alter them at our suggestion, but it was too late.

At the same time, we sympathise entirely with the frustration of peers (they voted two to one for the amendments) at the failure of government to implement the Leveson recommendations. If, as a result of the amendments, the Conservatives now abandon the Defamation Bill entirely, that will be entirely their responsibility, and also a sign that ministers are afraid to face any vote in the Commons relating to Leveson.

Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart. This post originally appeared on hackinginquiry.org, and is crossposted here with permission.

Lord Justice Leveson. Photograph: Getty Images

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide