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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.