Archive for the ‘Leveson’ Category

Can Newspapers Convince the Public IPSO is not a ‘sham’?

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This post was first published at the Huffington Post UK on 8th September 2014

As IPSO – the press’ response to Leveson – opened for business this week, newspapers may be wondering whether they will be able to convince the public that it is not just a replica of its discredited predecessor, the Press Complaints Commission.

No doubt IPSO will receive praise from newspapers themselves – at least initially. But will this be enough to paper over its shortcomings? And will it be enough to distract the public from how far the self-regulator is from what Leveson recommended, and from what Parliament agreed.

Based on the public’s response to the coverage of the Leveson Report and its implementation by the national press, the answer is no. It is highly unlikely that positive newspaper coverage will ever convince the public that IPSO is independent or effective.

In the twelve months after Leveson published his recommendations, from November 2012 to November 2013, the national press – with the notable exceptions of The Guardian, The Independent and the FT – went for Leveson’s report and the subsequent settlement by Royal Charter with undisguised and undiluted rage.

The rage did not come in intermittent shouts, but as one persistent scream. 2,047 articles published over twelve months. That equates to an average of six articles in the national press each day on press regulation, every day for a year. The subject was covered far more than it was during the Inquiry itself (when there was, arguably, ‘news’ coming out of the Royal Courts of Justice every day).

Nor were these articles neutral news reports. Over two-thirds of the two thousand articles expressed a view about Leveson or its aftermath. Most of these views were negative. Seven out of ten leader columns about press regulation after Leveson – out of 217 published – were wholly negative. In other words, they did not have a single positive thing to say about Leveson or the post-Leveson settlement.

Headlines of the leader articles will give you a pretty good impression: ‘Shadow of fear over public’s right to know’, ‘Lords-a-leaping to gag the press’, ‘Statutes against liberty’, ‘Defy the zealots and defend liberty’, ‘Don’t give up on press freedom now’, ‘A muzzled media will make victims of us all’, ‘Press freedom – no longer made in Britain’, ‘Charging headlong to a secret state’. And so on and on.

The negative coverage was not restricted to opinion and leader columns either. The majority of news reports expressed a view too. In many cases this view was not a quote from a news source but just stated within the article, as though it were an accepted fact. For example, under the headline ‘Papering over the cracks’, the Daily Mirror reported that “Lord Leveson [sic] sparked fears for the future of investigative journalism yesterday by proposing draconian curbs on reporters” (30th November, 2012).

Simultaneously, newspapers praised their own efforts to create an industry Royal Charter and to set-up their own Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). Of 19 leader columns in the national press about the industry Royal Charter, all 19 were wholly positive. Of eight leader columns in the national press about IPSO during this period, all eight were wholly positive. North Korean leaders could hardly hope for a better press.

Perhaps, you might argue, this was because there was not a diversity of views out there. Yet there was. The leading Leveson recommendations were supported by all parties in Parliament, by the victims of press abuse, by many civil society groups and – most importantly – by the public (based on four polls conducted in the weeks surrounding the publication of the judge’s report, one commissioned by The Sunday Times). Support persisted amongst all these groups for the Royal Charter agreement reached in March 2013.

Or perhaps you might argue that the newspapers were simply reflecting a hardening of the public’s views following the Inquiry, and growing fears amongst the public about the potential threat of the recommendations to press freedom.

But again, this is not borne out by the evidence. 24 opinion polls were commissioned between May 2012 and June 2014 that covered aspects of press regulation. Even taking into account the use of trigger words in questions (‘MPs’, ‘politicians’, ‘independent’) the view of the majority of the public is not hard to discern from these.

According to almost all these polls the British public want tough press regulation. We are comfortable with press regulation being supported through legislation. We do not see this is a threat to press freedom. We are distrustful of politicians. We are even more distrustful of newspapers.

These views hardly changed over the course of the year following Leveson’s report, despite the cavalcade of abuse hurled at the judge’s recommendations and at the Royal Charter in much of the national press.

One has to conclude, therefore, that when it came to press regulation most national newspapers were not interested in representing the views of the public. Nor were they concerned to balance their own views with the views of those who disagreed with them. They preferred to publish articles that conformed to their own viewpoint and to suppress or ignore those of others. Their own viewpoint, consistent with their own self-interest, was to denigrate Leveson’s report and its implementation.

And yet, despite this outpouring of rage and negativity by most of the national press, public opinion remained consistently in favour of a Leveson system and consistently against the industry alternatives.

The lesson from the past couple of years is that paeans of praise from newspapers for IPSO will have little impact on the public’s confidence in it. Without public confidence no regulator can hope to survive for long.

The figures in this piece come from a new report published by the Media Standards Trust – ‘How newspapers covered press regulation after Leveson’ by Dr Gordon Neil Ramsay which can be read here. The full dataset is available here.

Written by Martin Moore

September 25th, 2014 at 4:08 pm

Using the rhetoric of press freedom to thwart free speech

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On how the British press has denied the British public a proper debate on press regulation. This post was originally published on Free Speech Debate on December 12th 2013

It rarely takes long, in arguments about free speech, before someone refers to John Milton or John Stuart Mill. Most of us remember one particularly strong defence of free speech made in both Milton’s Areopagatica and Mill’s On Liberty. Any attempt to censor, suppress or constrain free speech, Milton and Mill argue, denies people access to the truth.

Truth and falsehood should do battle, Milton wrote, in a free and open encounter. Only in such circumstances could truth triumph.

Silencing an opinion, Mill wrote, either robs people of the truth, or – if the opinion is wrong – deprives people of “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

In the heated, often fractious, debate about press regulation in Britain, the rhetoric of freedom has been widely deployed. Barely a day went by in October 2013 when a national newspaper did not publish a report, editorial or leader about the importance of our free press. This freedom was, most of those pieces argued, put in jeopardy by the system of regulation set out in the cross-party royal charter and agreed on 30 October 2013.

Yet it would be hard to find a debate in modern times that has been less free than the one about press regulation. Far from being Milton’s “free and open encounter” between different views, the debate in the press has been virtually monopolised by those with one perspective. The public have, to use Mill’s terms, been deprived “the clearer and livelier perception of truth” since they have, with notable exceptions, only been presented with one view.

The public have not been given the facts, the arguments, or the diversity of perspective from which to make up their own minds about press regulation.

On the facts, the public have been deprived of even the basic material from which to make up their own minds. During the Leveson Inquiry, for example, the press simply failed to report on potential alternative systems of press regulation. Though numerous proposals were put forward for new systems, including ‘A Free and Accountable Media’, from the Media Standards Trust. almost none were reported on. This is despite the fact that Leveson based many of his eventual recommendations on these proposals. By contrast, there were 56 articles about the press’ own plan (see our ‘Analysis: Press Coverage of Leveson, Part 1′)

When it came to the report itself, the misreporting of Leveson’s main recommendation was, as the renowned editor Harold Evans said in the Hugh Cudlipp lecture, “staggering.” David Yelland, former editor of The Sun, said in his inaugural Leveson Anniversary Lecture, there was a party line amongst newspapers about what Leveson said which was “not really true.” Leveson wrote: “Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press.” Yet this is exactly how they were characterised.

Leveson’s system would, many newspapers claimed, allow for state censorship. This is despite the fact that Leveson was adamant, throughout this recommendations, that the state should have no role in the system beyond its establishment, and that no regulator should have the power to stop anyone publishing anything.

Leveson’s recommendations would enable government interference, other papers claimed. Yet Leveson recommended the opposite, going so far as to say that the UK needed a law to prevent government interference. This recommendation was not even referred to in the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, The Sun, The Times, The Sunday Times or in the Daily Express. It was referred to only once in most other papers when the report was published.

Then there was the coverage of, or failure to cover, the process that followed the publication of the report. In January and February 2013  the Prime Minister David Cameron and two other key ministers, Oliver Letwin and Maria Miller, together had more than 30 meetings with senior executives and editors from the press. You would not know this because not a single one of those meetings was reported. In February, we – the Media Standards Trust – wrote to Lord (Guy) Black, one of the key figures drawing up the industry’s response to Leveson who attended at least eleven of these, requesting that they be made public. He refused. We only now know of them because of the official lists of Ministers’ meetings published in the autumn (Oliver Letwin meetings, January-March 2013; Maria Miller meetings, January-March 2013; David Cameron meetings January-March 2013). Yet they remain unreported in the press.

Instead, newspapers chose to fixate on a single meeting that was held on the evening of Sunday 17 March, at which representatives of the victims’ campaign group – and the author of this piece – were invited to view the agreed cross-party charter before it went before parliament on 18 March. At this meeting, newspapers claim, a royal charter was cobbled together over pizza. Except it wasn’t. What happened at this meeting, and context for it, has been described in detail by Oliver Letwin to a parliamentary select committee (Oral Evidence, 16th April 2013). Yet Letwin’s account has been ignored because it contradicts the press’ narrative.

Therefore by the time a cross-party royal charter was agreed on 18 March, a member of the public would probably have thought – based on what they had read in most papers – that Leveson concocted a new system from his head, that this new system allowed for state censorship and government interference, and that the agreed royal charter to implement the system was improvised by campaigners for the victims in the middle of the night in Ed Miliband’s office. None of this is true.

Members of the public have been similarly ill-served by much of their press when it comes to argument and diversity of opinion. There has not been “the collision of adverse opinions” as Mill argued there needs to be. In the lead up to the publication of Leveson’s report there were 28 leader columns about press regulation in national newspapers. 23 were wholly negative. Three had negative and positive comments. Two were neutral. Not one was wholly positive. Since publication of the report, editorials and opinion pieces have been just as consistently negative.

What is remarkable is that throughout this period, despite the consistently negative press coverage, public opinion has remained stubbornly steady. The public want tougher regulation of the press. They are in favour of a system similar to the one proposed by Leveson. They are comfortable with a system of regulation underpinned by law. In other words, the majority of the public disagree with the press (see this list of polls since May 2012). Yet their views are not represented in the papers.

Instead of representing the views of their public, much of the press have chosen to deploy the rhetoric of press freedom to stamp on dissenting voices. Ironically, Leveson predicted the press’ response to his own report. Buried in Volume Three, amongst a detailed examination of the Data Protection Act, Leveson lays out the modus operandi of certain newspapers when put under pressure to reform. First, there is “resistance to independent regulation of both law and standards.” Next, the press present “a confrontational, aggressive and personal approach to its critics.” It then engages in “powerful behind the scenes political lobbying in its own interests.” Finally, it uses “the deployment, through a very loud megaphone, of the rhetoric of the freedom of the press to stifle rational criticism and debate about where the public interest lies”(Volume 3, p.1,107).

The rhetoric of press freedom has been, and continues to be, used by parts of the press as a way of preventing a “free and open encounter” between truth and falsehood in the debate over press regulation. The British public, sadly, have been the losers.

Written by Martin Moore

May 27th, 2014 at 3:20 pm

The topsy–turvy world of newspaper regulation and government spies

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Press Freedom, Leveson, GCHQ and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

This piece was originally published at the New Statesman on 25 November 2013

At the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice and Wonderland the March Hare upbraids Alice for claiming she can solve a riddle:

“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare. “Exactly so,”  said Alice.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!”

In Britain today, you might just as well say ‘The press is free’ as ‘Free the press’, or ‘the end of press freedom’ as ‘freedom to end the press’ or ‘state controlled press’ as ‘press controlled state’. So back-to-front, upside down, and misshapen has the debate about press freedom become.

On the one hand we have had a chorus of newspapers thundering about how the press Royal Charter on self-regulation of the press agreed on 30th October represents the end of 300 years of press freedom, and would allow politicians control of the British press.

On the other hand we have had many of the same newspapers accusing one of their own — the Guardian — of ‘treason’ and helping terrorists, for revealing the extent of secret surveillance by the British and US governments.

Both in principle and practice these newspapers have got the debate the wrong way round. They claim the Royal Charter represents an end to press freedom without providing evidence to support such a claim. At the same time they fail to see any danger to press freedom from the types of threats made by the government against the Guardian. Continue to mix the debate up and we will end up with a press cowed and politically compromised. But see the Royal Charter and Snowden affair for what they are and Britain could become a freer and fairer country.

The press Royal Charter has earned hundreds of column inches in the UK press in the past month. Countless leaders and news reports have intoned about the dangers for press freedom from political interference. ‘A press free from political ­interference is a precious inheritance’, The Times’ leader of 31st October read. The Royal Charter ‘grants politicians the right to meddle in press regulation for the first time since the licensing of newspapers was abolished in 1695’, claimed the Daily Mail. Whilst The Telegraph said that ‘The question of how our press is regulated is a question of how best to defend free speech. It is about ensuring that responsible newspapers have the freedom to publish what they wish and that the public have the freedom to read what we publish. That is why we cannot accept the current proposals for regulation by statute’.

We should take these claims seriously because, if true, they would justify the boycott of the system by many news groups, and undermine separate claims – made by Leveson, politicians, the group representing victims of press abuse, and others — that the Charter will protect press freedom and even enhance it.

So, does the Charter grant ‘politicians the right to meddle in Press regulation’, and does it in any way threaten newspapers freedom to publish what they wish, or the public’s freedom to read what they publish?

The first thing to make clear is that the Charter does not establish a regulator. It establishes a body whose sole task will be to check the independence and effectiveness of regulators set up by news organisations themselves, administering their own code of conduct. The body will base its assessment on a series of basic standards, written by Lord Justice Leveson, and copied into a schedule in the Charter. Those newspapers who have claimed the criteria were drawn up by politicians should compare Leveson’s wording with the wording of the Royal Charter. It is hard to fit a cigarette paper between them.

Politicians are explicitly excluded from the body established by Royal Charter. Further, they are excluded from the staff of that body, and from the Appointments Panel that appoints that body. Any regulator that wants to be recognised by this body is also explicitly banned from having any politicians on its Board. It is hard, therefore, to see how this corresponds to the Daily Mail’s claim that the Charter ‘grants politicians the right to meddle in press regulation’.

Royal Charters are, however, instruments of royal prerogative. As such, with most Royal Charters it is possible for privy councillors (of whom there are hundreds, including serving government ministers) to meddle. It was for this reason that an amendment was passed in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act (2013) that prevents — by law — any interference in this Royal Charter by privy councillors. Again, it is hard to see how this corresponds to the Daily Mail’s claim.

What about The Telegraph’s view that the Charter jeopardises newspapers freedom to publish what they wish? No evidence is given to support this assertion, and it is hard to see what it could be based on. The Charter states that no regulator should ‘have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone, at any time’. Any regulator established should only have the power to offer redress to members of the public after publication. This contradicts The Telegraph’s assertion.

But what about future amendment of the Charter? This argument, which is perhaps the one made most frequently, is that the Charter provides a device that future politicians can change such that they can exert control over the press. The argument has been made more broadly than just by The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph.

According to these articles, this is how it might work. A future parliament, angry at the press for revealing something like MPs’ expenses, changes the Royal Charter in a way that constrains press freedom to do something similar in the future. For example, a future parliament alters the so-called ‘recognition criteria’ in the Royal Charter to include a clause preventing examination of MPs’ financial affairs.

This scenario might sound reasonable and credible. As such, it will cause sensible people who care about press freedom to worry. Except that, when examined, it becomes clear that it is neither reasonable nor credible.

This is how such a scenario would actually play out under the Charter system. If MPs were angry at the press they would first have to agree on what to do about it. Having agreed that a change in the Royal Charter was the best approach (highly unlikely, as you will see later) they would then need to convince two thirds of their number. Having convinced two thirds of their number, they would then have to convince two thirds of the House of Lords. They would then have to gain the unanimous agreement of the independent Board of the Recognition body (none of whom can be politicians). They would have to do this against a backdrop of public debate about the changes and, no doubt, many concerned voices published in the pages of national papers and elsewhere.

But let us, for the sake of argument, accept that the proposed change to the Charter passes these hurdles and the Charter is changed. What does this then mean? It means that, at the next three-year cyclical review (or at an emergency review – if the independent recognition body can make the case that one is necessary), a regulator or regulators – taking into account the change to the Charter – will have to decide whether to put themselves forward for recognition under the amended Charter criteria.

Given that the board of any regulator will include those working in the press, those with experience of the press, and independent members, it is unthinkable that they would put themselves forward if they thought the changes represented a serious infringement of their freedom to publish in the public interest. Why would they?

Assuming, therefore, that the regulator — or regulators — did not apply for recognition, then there would be no recognised regulator. The court costs incentives for participation, and penalties for non-participation, in a regulatory system would therefore disappear (since these only apply when there is a recognised regulator).

This is the failsafe that has been ignored by those in the press that rail against the Charter. It is not simply for the publishers to choose whether they join, or do not join, a regulator. It is also for the regulator to decide whether to put itself forward for recognition (as the industry’s Independent Press Standards Organisation has said it will not do). If they believe the Charter has been made too restrictive, then they can choose not to participate.

The regulator, or regulators, could then continue to do its job, without the court cost penalties or incentives of the Leveson system (in other words, essentially what we have right now). The change to the Charter, which would have needed to pass numerous democratic hurdles, and would have been years in the making, would turn out to be counter-productive, and would have no impact on the press’ ability to publish anything, at any time, to anyone. There would be no end to press freedom, no government control, no political interference.

Contrast this with an alternative scenario. Imagine that MPs are angry at the press for revealing MPs expenses and are determined to prevent it happening in the future. By a simple majority they introduce a change to the Freedom of Information Act to exclude the personal financial affairs of MPs. Or they could amend the Data Protection Act to protect the privacy of MPs’ spending. Each change only requires a majority vote in the House of Commons. The change comes into force within months and suddenly MPs can rest easy that their future purchases of bath plugs and film channel subscriptions will remain hidden from public view.

This is a real threat. This is something that could happen now. MPs can, and do, use and amend existing legislation in a way that genuinely threatens press freedom. Equally, they can turn to their existing powers and legislation already available — though not meant for journalism — to constrain and attack journalism.

In July, a senior editor and a computer expert at the Guardian destroyed a number of computers with angle grinders. The computers contained files leaked by Edward Snowden on the activities of GCHQ and the NSA. The destruction was directed by the UK intelligence service and was overseen by technicians from GCHQ.

In August, David Miranda was stopped while in transit through Heathrow airport. He was held under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act (2000). He was interrogated for nine hours and various personal items taken from him and not returned. Subsequently the authorities said he had been stopped based on the belief that he was engaged in espionage and was promoting a “political or ideological cause”. Miranda was promoting no such cause, unless the authorities define ‘journalism’ as a cause.

In October, the Prime Minister David Cameron stood up in the House of Commons and said that the Snowden files were ‘dangerous’ for Britain: “The plain fact is that what has happened has damaged national security”. He encouraged parliamentary committees to investigate the Guardian’s actions. In a subsequent debate he went further and threatened the Guardian with pre-publication censorship:

“I don’t want to have to use injunctions or D notices or the other tougher measures. I think it’s much better to appeal to newspapers’ sense of social responsibility. But if they don’t demonstrate some social responsibility it would be very difficult for government to stand back and not to act”.

Some MPs went further still. Julian Smith MP wrote to the head of the Metropolitan Police asking him to investigate the Guardian and calling on the police to compel the Guardian to cooperate.

This is what it looks like when a government attacks press freedom. Smashing computers in news organisations. Using existing terrorist laws not meant for journalism. Threatening pre-publication censorship and prosecution.

In the US The Washington Post also has access to some of Snowden’s documents. It has published a series of stories based on those documents. It has written opinion pieces about the NSA and Snowden, including one calling Snowden a patriot. Has the US government attacked The Washington Post? No it has not. Has it sent intelligence officials to destroy its hardware? It has not. Obama has even acknowledged the benefits of the debate triggered by Snowden’s leaks. ‘There’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case if I had simply appointed this review board’ Obama said. Though this does not mean the US government applauds Snowden, far from it.

It is not surprising that the UK government should be angry about the Snowden leaks. Nor is it surprising, though it is depressing, that the government should threaten a newspaper that is publishing stories based on the leaks. Governments do not like their secrets exposed, and it would be strange if they did not react strongly to the possession of 58,000 intelligence documents (the number — we are told — that were leaked to the Guardian).

Much more surprising – and more depressing – has been the reaction of much of the British press. The Sun accused The Guardian of ‘treason’. The Daily Mail called it ‘The paper that helps Britain’s enemies’. The Telegraph has uncritically reported claims by the government and intelligence agencies that it has helped terrorists around the world (‘Terrorists are ‘rubbing their hands with glee’ after Snowden leaks’).

The press attacks on the Guardian are framed as patriotic attempts to promote security. Yet the arguments made and language used do not balance security with freedom to publish. Indeed, these papers urge the government to constrain the Guardian’s freedom, and egg on the most vociferous MPs. The MP Julian Smith even referenced The Sun’s coverage to ask if it was not ‘time for any newspaper that may have crossed the line on national security to come forward and voluntarily work with the Government to mitigate further risks to our citizens?’ (HC Deb, 28 October 2013, c666).

To what end are these newspapers doing this? If the government does investigate and prosecute, or institute new laws to better secure ‘national security’ then we will live in a more secretive country, one in which news organisations have to be careful not to publish material that may, in the Government’s view, damage our safety and security.

If that sounds familiar it is because most non-democratic states in the world have laws that prevent media organisations from publishing information that may threaten the security of the state. In Russia, for example, the law on Combating Extremist Activity (2002) can be used against media organisations whose behaviour is considered dangerous to the State. In Syria for decades the government was able to exert control over the media through the state of emergency law. In Belarus you can serve up to five years in prison for insulting the president.

Laws such as these give broad powers to the state to prevent publication of material they do not like, or that they believe may damage their reputation internationally. Stories, for example, like MPs’ expenses.

We live in a world of leaks. Storing vast quantities of information, removing it from government or corporations, distributing it, and publishing it, has become straightforward. Leaking, to a general or a restricted public, will become more, not less, prevalent. Manning and Snowden are not anomalies, they are forerunners.

When such leaks happen, what would the government and security services prefer? Would they prefer that future Snowdens simply dumped their documents on the web? Or would they prefer that future leakers approached responsible news organisations?

No doubt the intelligence agencies would most like leakers to come to them. Yet technological, political and societal developments are such that it would be foolish to imagine information available to more than a hundred thousand people will remain secret indefinitely. The information Snowden had access to was reportedly available to 850,000 people.

We need models of how to use these leaks responsibly. We need media institutions that have the capabilities, the expertise, and the journalistic ethics, to properly assess and manage these leaks. Attack these institutions and we encourage data dumping. What whistleblower will now choose to go to The TelegraphThe Times, The Daily Mail or The Sun?

The actions of certain UK newspapers will discourage responsible whistleblowing and cow brave journalism that is in the public interest. Worse, it could encourage the government to behave in a way that discourages other news organisations from accepting data in the future. Fearing, for example, that the government will enter their offices and smash their computers.

We cannot rely on the UK government to restrain itself. Nor can we rely on our media to defend media institutions from government interference. This is why Britain needs to have an equivalent of the United States’ First Amendment. Something that Leveson recommended in his report but which, bizarrely, was ignored by most newspapers:

‘In passing legislation to identify the legitimate requirements to be met by an independent regulator organised by the press, and to provide for a process of recognition and review of whether those requirements are and continue to be met, the law should also place an explicit duty on the Government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press’ (Leveson Report, Summary of Recommendations, #33).

Sadly, no newspapers have taken up Leveson’s call for a press freedom law. Instead, quixotically, many have tilted at imaginary windmills of their own making. They have chosen to rail against a voluntary system of independent self-regulation that will not constrain their freedom, rather than defend a newspaper that is being subjected to state interference under existing laws.

The rhetoric of press freedom seems to have disappeared into Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, where up means down, left means right, and almost everyone has forgotten what freedom really means.

Written by Martin Moore

December 11th, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Less transparent than a papal election

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The government’s secret political manoeuvres to create an alternative to Leveson undermine any claims they might have had to upholding the “Leveson principles”.

This post was first published at the New Statesman on 19th December 2012

Less than two hours after the Leveson report was published – just over 24 hours after he gained first sight of it – the Prime Minister rejected the report’s central recommendation. But, in his same Parliamentary statement, he committed to creating a new, independent system of press self-regulation that adhered to the Leveson principles.

Having rejected the first he is now failing on the second.

Central to Leveson’s criticisms of previous self-regulatory systems was the way in which they were set up. Each time, Leveson said, the industry focused on its own needs and not those of the public. Each time the result was a system that served the industry well but failed the public. Any new system, Leveson makes clear, should be set up in consultation with, and with the direct involvement of, the public – including the victims of press abuse.

This did not happen with the plan submitted by the industry to the Leveson Inquiry – the so-called “Hunt/Black” plan. The judge said he found it remarkable that, even after all the revelations about phone hacking and press abuse, Lords Hunt and Black could develop a proposal without involving victims, civil society groups or working journalists.

Leveson writes:

I find it extraordinary that, given the acceptance by Lord Black and the newspaper industry that the current system of press regulation has lost public confidence, they did not regard public views on the matter as of sufficient interest or importance to make any effort to ascertain them. I find it more extraordinary that, having had its attention drawn to this point by the Inquiry, there is still no sign of the industry making any effort to understand public expectations in relation to press standards. This lack of interest in the views of the public may be symptomatic of the approach that the press has consistently taken towards regulation over many decades. It demonstrates the extent to which the press continue to prioritise their own interests, with consideration of the wider public interest only in as much as it applies to the importance of protecting the freedom of the press, and only then to the extent that they can appoint themselves the arbiter of it.

As a result, the industry’s plan, like so many others before it, was biased against the public, and against the victims of press abuse. “It is important to note,” the judge writes on page 1622, “that the proposal put forward by Lord Black gives no rights of any sort to members of the public”. This is why, he says, so many previous systems have failed and why the new one must be built differently. “I have said, many times,” he continues, “that any new regulatory system must work for the public and for a system to work for the public it should have the rights and interests of the public at its heart.” The proposal put forward by the industry “manifestly fails that test.”

If there was ever a “Leveson principle”, this is it. A new system of independent self-regulation cannot be credible if it is not developed with the public at its heart, and done in an open, transparent and accountable way.

Yet this is the opposite of what is happening. A new system is being developed, at great speed, by senior government ministers and officials, and by newspaper editors and senior executives, entirely behind closed doors. Senior government figures are, we are told, devising an alternative to Leveson based on “Royal Charter”, a use of Royal prerogative created almost a millennium ago and used mainly in the medieval and early modern period.

A more opaque, Byzantine solution to the problem Leveson was seeking to address would be difficult to invent. A less democratic, open and transparent vehicle is hard to conceive.

At the same time a group of editors and senior executives are meeting, it is reported, on an almost daily basis to thrash out a new system of self-regulation that is “Leveson-compliant”. We do not know how they define Leveson-compliant, or even who is meeting or when since the process is shrouded in darkness.

At no stage in the last three weeks have either the editors or the government sought to make the process open or sought to include the victims, civil society groups, or working journalists.

To devise a solution in such an occluded and secretive manner contradicts the first Levesonian principle. If it does not change it will be the second betrayal of the public and victims in almost as many weeks.

Written by Martin Moore

December 21st, 2012 at 9:20 am

Posted in Leveson