Ian Burrell: As Lord Leveson prepares to give his verdict, it's gone strangely quiet

Media Studies: Evan Harris, of the press reform group Hacked Off, smells a conspiracy not to cover Leveson
  • @iburrell

A source close to News International spoke to me last week with no little enthusiasm about the recent press treatment of Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into media standards. Or rather, it is the lack of coverage that gives cause for comfort at Rupert Murdoch's Wapping HQ.

We have had an inquisition into every nook and cranny of newspaper culture, an audit greater than any press inquiry in the past and one that has genuinely opened the eyes of the public to the murkier machinations of the Fourth Estate. And yet, just as the judge prepares to present his hotly anticipated findings, things have gone strangely quiet.

Even the recent court appearance of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, who denied phone-hacking charges, attracted less attention in the written media than their former colleagues at NI had been anticipating.

What is going on here? Evan Harris, of the press reform group Hacked Off, smells a conspiracy. "There's clearly an approach being taken by much of the press not to cover anything on Leveson other than stories which undermine the inquiry," he says.

Harris might have some sympathy on this from JK Rowling, one of the victims of phone hacking. When the author recently conducted some publicity interviews for her novel The Casual Vacancy, she found herself accused of "hypocrisy" in a vitriolic attack by the Daily Mail, which was clearly also irked by the aggressive and restrictive marketing tactics of Rowling's publisher Little, Brown.

"Miss Rowling was one of the 'star witnesses' at the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, complaining bitterly about the press repeatedly invading her privacy," observed the Mail, before noting how she had talked at length to The Guardian about many aspects of her personal life. The writer, claimed the Mail, left herself "open to criticisms that she has compromised her own privacy to promote her book for financial gain".

Celebrity hacking victims have not all run for cover in the face of such hostility. Steve Coogan was at the Liberal Democrats conference in Brighton, lobbying Nick Clegg to accept the most far-reaching proposals that Leveson might come up with. Christopher Jefferies, the Bristol schoolteacher monstered by the red-tops in the wake of the Jo Yeates murder, sought similar commitments from Labour's Ed Miliband. This week in Birmingham, Charlotte Church will be making representations to David Cameron, asking the Prime Minister not to bury the inquiry's recommendations.

But, for all this, News International – and other sections of the press – will have drawn comfort from the notable absence of debate about Leveson during a party conference season that takes place just as this supposedly momentous report is due to appear. The fact that the issue has been largely confined to a few fringe discussions shows it is viewed with considerable nervousness by politicians, despite the promises given by Clegg and Miliband to the hacking victims.

After half a dozen previous press inquiries and commissions since 1947, Leveson surely cannot simply replenish the industry's whisky glass and extend the opening hours of the Last Chance Saloon. His 100-page "Rule 13" notice, issued to newspaper companies in August, indicated he was convinced of the need for sweeping reforms. But that document has provoked a response from the publishers which has left Leveson bogged down in legal wranglings. The result is that a report which was expected to be published by now has been severely delayed.

One consequence of this is that the annual Society of Editors conference on 11 November, which was expected to be an occasion when the leading figures of the press responded to the written criticisms of the judge, is now likely to become a last-minute opportunity for the industry to claim it has already put its house in order. The keynote speaker for this Belfast gathering is Lord Hunt who, it seems extraordinary to note, will be marking a full year in post as the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, a body that some people wrongly assume disappeared around the time the Milly Dowler phone-hacking scandal brought down the News of the World and demonstrated the inadequacies of the 21-year-old regulatory body.

Since then, many senior press industry figures believe the culture in Fleet Street newsrooms has changed. Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, believes the furore over publication by overseas outlets of topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge has improved the reputation of the British press in the eyes of the public.

Furthermore, the industry is willing to impose much tougher standards – including the introduction of investigatory powers and the threat of publishers being fined up to £1m – in return for maintaining a system of self-regulation.

For the more vociferous hacking victims, this is not enough. They regard such a solution as merely the "son" of Lord Hunt's discredited PCC and will not be happy unless Leveson introduces a statutory backstop that reinforces the powers of any future regulator.

Hacked Off is worried that even liberal newspaper groups will be "browbeaten" into toeing an industry line on reform – although it seems nonsensical to suggest that this paper or The Guardian, which reignited the hacking scandal, have in any way lost interest in the story.

Reformers are looking to the broadcast media for support but recent events at the BBC have not been helpful. The growing scandal of the organisation's failure to act on allegations of decades of child abuse by Jimmy Savile – under the noses of Britain's biggest newsroom – weakens the BBC's credibility when reporting critically on standards of corporate governance at News Corp.

But this is not Lord Justice Leveson's primary concern. Time pressures, however, will be on his mind. Latest expectations are that his report will not emerge before the end of November. Let us hope it is not further delayed. If the findings require changes to the law but are not published by the time Parliament rises on 20 December then they will not make it into the legislative timetable. And then there will be little need for politicians to kick Leveson into the long grass.

Dame's departure is sad day for women

News of Dame Marjorie Scardino's departure from Pearson after 16 years at the helm of the publisher of the Financial Times is another sad day for women in the British press.

Although Scardino has won great kudos by driving company profits to a record high, she is handing over to a male CEO, John Fallon.

Less than three years ago, more than half the titles in Fleet Street were produced by companies with female chief executives.

But first Carolyn McCall left her job as chief executive of Guardian Media Group to join easyJet and was replaced by Andrew Miller.

Then Rebekah Brooks stood down as CEO at News International – a role that was given to Tom Mockridge. The Trinity Mirror CEO Sly Bailey has recently been replaced by Simon Fox, the former boss of HMV.

All the national newspaper groups are now, once again, being run by men.

It’s easier for Ed to keep quiet

Whatever form it takes, the new press regulator will want to avoid the fate of its broadcast equivalent, Ofcom, which is being tormented by media lawyers.

The framework of Ofcom means its rulings are easily and habitually subjected to legal appeal. As a result, its decisions have generated more than 45 challenges in the Competition Appeals Tribunal at a cost of millions to the public purse – but generating vast wealth for m’learned friends.

So litigious is the territory that it’s surely no coincidence that Ed Richards, despite being the broadcasting regulator, has so far declined to register an account with Twitter.