Was ours “a free and open marketplace of information”? Not even close, says Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust.
This article was first published on the New Statesman website on 9th May 2013
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.