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.
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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.