Lord Leveson will deliver his verdict on the future of the British press in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal tomorrow. Fleet Street’s red tops are decidedly nervous about being curbed.
It’s D-day tomorrow for the British press, with the publication at 1.30pm (12.30am AEST) in London of Lord Leveson’s report on the print media. And the big question is whether he will recommend new laws to bring Britain’s appalling tabloids to heel.
Britain’s newspapers (including the good ones) passionately hope he won’t, or that the government won’t listen to him if he does. And they are in full panic mode at the prospect of laws designed to make them behave better.
Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to support Leveson’s recommendations for media regulation as long as they’re not “bonkers” (Britain’s favourite new word). He told the House of Commons in yesterday’s question time: “The status quo is unacceptable and needs to change.”
If he does back statutory regulation there will be a split in the Conservative Party. If he doesn’t, there will be a split in the party and also in the ruling coalition, between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
Last week, 42 Tory MPs wrote a letter to the PM urging him to bring in new regulations. This week a different 86 politicians (including a handful of Labour and Lib Dem MPs and a lot of Tory MPs and Lords) wrote to The Telegraph to warn it would be the worst thing to happen to press freedom in Britain for 300 years. That’s roughly when the government last licensed newspapers in 1695.
Cameron’s desire to find a lasting solution will doubtless be strengthened by a poll from the Media Standards Trust, published this week, which shows statutory regulation has overwhelming support among British voters. Four out of five want a system, backed up by law, which would give “an independent press regulator” the power to punish journalists who breach an agreed code of conduct. Continued self-regulation of the press (or the current pretence at self-regulation) has the support of only one person in 10.
The devil will be in the detail, of course, and we’re not going to predict what Leveson has designed. But, having watched most of the inquiry, and noted the questions from Lord Leveson and his interrogator, Robert Jay QC, we can make a couple of observations about the problems he has to address.
One of the three main themes of the hearings was that Britain’s politicians have long feared Rupert Murdoch because his papers had so much power. His News International currently has around 40% of Britain’s newspaper sales. There is only one way for Leveson to deal with this and it involves suggesting limits on the share of the market that any proprietor is allowed to have. Hold your breath to see if his Lordship dares suggest stripping Rupert of some of his papers tomorrow. And hold your breath again for the reaction from the politicians if he does.
And just remember that a young Australian media mogul once said: “The important thing is that there be plenty of newspapers with plenty of different people controlling them … Freedom of the press mustn’t just be one-sided for a proprietor to speak as he pleases, to bully the community.”
You got it. That was Rupert talking to the BBC’s Panorama programme back in 1969, after he had bought the News of the World and was taking over The Sun. He said at the time the Brits would never let him have more newspapers in the future. But they did — thanks to Margaret Thatcher, whom Rupert’s Sun so avidly supported.
A second big theme of Leveson’s inquiry was that the tabloids have used illegal methods — blagging, phone hacking and corruption of public officials — to get their stories. Once again, the Murdoch papers led the charge in this, but most of Fleet Street’s tabloids were up to it too. This problem has arguably been dealt with in that there are already laws against such things, and there is a huge police investigation underway — involving criminal charges against several Murdoch journalists. The criminal trials due to start next year should help discourage the use of such methods in the future.
“We’ll see what Leveson proposes tomorrow. But he knows it has to be good.”
But Leveson may consider recommending tougher penalties for breaching some of these existing laws. The famous Operation Motorman prosecutions in 2004 — when half of Fleet Street was revealed to be buying information illegally from the cops — collapsed because they would have resulted in a fine at worst. A proposal by then-PM Gordon Brown to introduce jail sentences for such offences was shelved when the press barons (led by Murdoch’s man in London, Les Hinton) persuaded him not to. It could easily be reintroduced.
Leveson might also consider creating two new criminal offences to outlaw secret filming, secret recording and placing listening devices on private property, and to outlaw entering private property to obtain information. This was suggested by the last major inquiry into Britain’s tabloids (largely precipitated by the behaviour of Murdoch’s Sun), conducted by Sir David Calcutt QC in 1990. Needless to say, the press managed to kill it. Leveson is certainly aware of this.
The third area is far more difficult: damage to individuals — be they celebrities, politicians, soapie stars, footballers or victims of crime — from the publication of stories that stomp on their privacy, ruin their careers and drag families through the mud. Once again, Murdoch’s papers were way ahead of the pack in this, but the other tabloids, like the Daily Mail, Daily Star and People, were doing their best. A cavalcade of victims — the Dowlers, the McCanns, Charlotte Church, Jacqui Hames, Anne Diamond and others, like Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and Max Mosley — told Leveson in great detail of the pain or humiliation they had suffered.
Dealing with these excesses by the tabloids — if they can be dealt with — involves setting limits on what newspapers are allowed to do to people for the sake of a story. It involves defining the boundary between people’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know. And it involves defining what is, and what is not, in the public interest. Then you need a mechanism to police this boundary and to punish transgressions — arguably defamation courts, or via privacy actions (such as the successful action brought by Mosley) or in a press code and a press tribunal, or all of these.
We’ll see what Leveson proposes tomorrow. But he knows it has to be good. His Lordship is well aware of what happened to the Calcutt media inquiry in 1990 — when the tabloids had already been warned by the Tory government they were “drinking in the last chance saloon”. And he is determined not to suffer the same fate.
Calcutt preferred statutory controls on the press, but was persuaded to give self-regulation yet another last chance. The proprietors responded by setting up the Press Complaints Commission, which turned out to be a pet poodle.
It was the PCC that failed to bark while phone-hacking and corruption of public officials was rife in Britain in the early 2000s. It was the PCC that licked the News of the World’s hand when it claimed hacking was confined to “one rogue reporter”. And it was the PCC that bit the policeman when The Guardian revealed in 2009 there were hundreds of phone-hacking victims. Instead of investigating The Guardian’s claims, it attacked the paper for its reporting.
Quite rightly, the PCC is now thoroughly discredited. Tomorrow we should find out what’s likely to replace it.