The press denied readers the facts over Leveson

Was ours "a free and open marketplace of information"? Not even close, says Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust.

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? (John Milton, Areopagitica).

Milton’s words in Areopagitica still have a wonderful power and resonance. Who, in a vibrant democracy, could object to truth and falsehood grappling with one another in a marketplace of diverse information and opinions?

When it came to reporting and comment on the Leveson Inquiry in the press, was there a marketplace of diverse information and opinions? Was it a fair and open encounter? Our analysis, the first of the whole Inquiry, shows that – with notable exceptions – it was not.
We have just finished analysing news coverage of the Leveson Inquiry from 14 July 2011, the day after it was announced, until 28 November 2012, the day before the report was published. In this period the national press published over 2,000 articles about the Inquiry. Dr Gordon Neil Ramsay, research fellow at the Media Standards Trust, has reviewed and assessed every article with help from LSE Masters students (for those who want to see the raw data and methodology, they are available below).

Three things jump out from the analysis. First, that the decision by the Inquiry to live stream its hearings, and put as much information as it could on the web, was enormously important. It led to a considerable volume of reporting of the testimony – reporting that could be measured against footage of the testimony itself. From this we can see that while witnesses were giving oral evidence to the Inquiry, whether it reflected positively or negatively on the press, it was generally reported relatively fairly and neutrally.

This neutrality and balance plummeted as soon as the oral hearings finished. The level of neutrality – in reporting and comment – fell from 89 per cent while the Inquiry was live streamed to 37 per cent after the live streaming ended.

The second thing that jumps out is the general negative framing of the Inquiry, particularly as time wore on. Bear in mind that this analysis is of coverage before the Leveson report was published. Prior to publication the judge was very careful not to give any indication at to what he would recommend. Despite this, of the four to five hundred articles in this period that expressed a view, over three quarters were negative.
This negative framing steps up a gear in the 100 days before Leveson made his recommendations. In the period leading up to publication there were 28 leader columns about Leveson in the national press. 23 of these contained only negative statements. Three contained both positive and negative. Two contained neither. Not a single leader column contained only positive statements.

The criticism normally took one of three forms. The most common was that the Inquiry would recommend something inimical to press freedom. The next, that the Inquiry was in some way misconceived – poorly framed, poorly composed or poorly managed. The third, that the Inquiry was a waste of time given everything else in the world that needed our attention.

The first and most prevalent of these Leveson criticisms – about press freedom - might have been more understandable to the public if we had been told why the Inquiry was a threat. But the press did not report on the possible alternatives being proposed. There were, in total, six articles – 0.3 per cent of the total – describing or explaining other proposals for press regulation. This is despite the fact that a number of these proposals formed the basis for the judge’s eventual recommendations.

By contrast, there were 56 articles about the plans put forward by the industry. A plan that Lord Justice Leveson said did not come close "to delivering ... regulation that is itself genuinely free and independent of the industry it regulates and political control".

A member of the newspaper reading public, therefore, would have almost no basis on which to make their own judgment on what the effect of Leveson might be. If you relied on the press to understand what options were open to Leveson and what he might recommend, then you would think no viable plan had been put forward beyond that proposed by the press themselves.

You would therefore have to take it on trust when comment and opinion pieces said, as they did repeatedly, that if Leveson recommended anything but the press’ own plan, then it would be disastrous for press freedom and terrible for democracy.

"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion", JS Mill wrote in On Liberty, "is, that it is robbing the human race... If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

This analysis shows that the public were deprived of facts from which they could make up their own minds. As well as being deprived of the facts, they were deprived of diverse opinions. This was not Milton’s "free and open encounter".  This was not a diverse marketplace of ideas. And this was before the Inquiry reported. Coverage became even more unbalanced after the report was published on 29th November 2011. But that analysis will have to wait for Part 2 of the report.

Martin Moore is Director of the Media Standards Trust

You can read the Media Standards Trust report on the coverage of the Leveson Inquiry here (pdf)You can find the raw data sets on which the analysis was based here.

"You had to take it on trust ... than anything but the press' plans would be disastrous for press freedom and terrible for democracy." Photo: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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