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22 December 2011

Predicting the legacy of Leveson

Hearings of the press standards inquiry will resume on 9 January. What do we do with what we've lear

By Steven Baxter

What have we learned from Leveson, Part One? Where is all this leading? And what are we going to get out of it, apart from old scores settled, mud flung at enemies from every quarter, and the dirty laundry from a particularly dirty industry aired in public for the very first time?

I’m not going to pretend I was glued to the coverage every single hour of every single day, as that would have been not only physically impossible but also a drain on my sanity. However, I’ve caught as much as I could as it’s happened, and read up on the testimonies as well as watching handy Match of the Day highlights packages on TV. The day I watched most intently was when Chris Jefferies, the former landlord of murder victim Joanna Yeates and the man vilified and demonised in the press when arrested on suspicion of the crime, gave testimony on the same day as Charlotte Church and Anne Diamond.

Jefferies was someone who would never garner the same headlines as the celebrities, but whose mauling at the hands of the tabloids — and not just tabloids — serves as a reminder that Leveson has been about more than just intrusion into popular culture’s rich and famous. He cut an ordinary, polite, precise figure when questioned about the events of a year ago, and how he was described as a “peeping tom” (despite no charges ever having been brought against him) and “obsessed with death” (for teaching English literature to pupils).

“Obsessed with death” is an interesting accusation for any tabloid newspaper to throw at someone, given their own delight in death and destruction. “If it bleeds, it leads”, goes the dusty old maxim, but what we’re learning at Leveson is giving fresh insight into those hack caricatures. Are they as far off the truth as we might want to imagine?

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We’ve learned how Charlotte Church and Anne Diamond alike found that one of the most intimate and private moments of their life, giving birth, became public property. Church said she gave birth at home, knowing there were six people outside the house with cameras; Diamond recalled how she had to scamper over a rooftop to avoid the togs camped out on her doorstep. I don’t know about you, but that squicked me out — not as much as Church’s recounting of the Sun‘s website “countdown to 16” did, but sufficiently to make a little bile rise in the chest, nevertheless.

It’s people like Jefferies, the McCanns and Robert Murat who tell the more interesting tales about press wrongdoing and the feeding frenzy that surrounds notable crime cases. All have been people of interest to authorities but later proved to be innocent of all charges — but coverage has been intense, unfair and cruel, bordering on character assassination and plain nastiness.

More recently, the interest in the McCann case was described as an “obsession” at Leveson by Daily Express reporter Nick Fagge — by the newspaper, not just the public who greedily snapped up every feeble rumour and scrap of information about the little girl’s disappearance in Portugal. I’ve wondered before whether it’s our fault, as the punters who buy these dirty rags, or the fault of the papers themselves for thinking so little of us to imagine that’s what we want to read; perhaps there is blame in both camps. It creates a vicious downward spiral.

Obsession — that word again. It would be wonderful to imagine that our press could be obsessed with accuracy, with fairness, with detail, or with presenting as close to a version of truth as you’re ever likely to get with so much prejudice, bias and human error between the events and the people to whom they’re related through whatever news medium they travel.

But there isn’t that obsession. Instead, a picture is emerging of obsession with beating the other team, beating the rivals, getting the story first — at whatever cost, and whether the story is right or wrong. First is everything, second is nowhere. As to who created this culture, you can argue whether it’s us as punters or them (or us, if you regard yourself as being part of that profession) who made it happen.

But the question is, what do we do with it? What do we want to do with it? Do we try and whip the tablecloth of the PCC away, leaving everything else standing in place? Or is it time to smash everything up and start again? There’s more to discover, and more to learn. Little of it will be of any comfort to those of us who hoped that those at the very top of their profession would somehow be better than this (and I suppose I should include myself in that category). We’ve heard the stories — now what do we want to do about it?

There’s something else, too. The longer this inquiry goes along, the more rumblings I’m starting to hear that, actually, there was nothing wrong with hacking Milly Dowler’s phone or printing Kate McCann’s diaries without her permission; that these kind of intrusions were somehow good journalistic practice, or something that anyone worth their salt would have done, had they been in the same position. It’s unpalatable, grumble the grizzled old hacks, but that’s what people want to read; if you don’t like how you get your news, go and buy the Guardian, but of course no one does.

That kind of attitude is still around. It was quiet for a while, when the public disgust at the News of the World‘s hacking was at its peak, and hacks were too craven to fight against the tide, but more and more voices are finding confidence to state those views. The thing is, they still don’t get it.

They really don’t get what’s wrong with doing that kind of stuff. They don’t see it as a problem; they think that anyone who disapproves of that is the one with the problem.

As ever with news, it moves in cycles. Some people are hoping that this story will go away, that the public will tire of Leveson like they tire of any long-running tale, and will forget what it’s all about. In a few months’ time, they hope, we’ll be back to the same diet of tits and bums and celebrity bullshit, and it will all be neatly forgotten about, just as the outrage over Princess Diana’s death and the behaviour of the paparazzi was forgotten about in time.

Are they right? That’s what I think will ultimately determine the legacy of Leveson — not the public figures giving evidence, but the weight of public opinion about it. Maybe we will all shrug our shoulders, and there will be further injustices against ordinary members of the public and celebrities alike; maybe we really want something done about it. But this would appear to be a once in a lifetime chance to get something done, if we do.

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