Leveson: What his paper should say
With the inquiry due to report on media regulation next week, a panel of experts, chaired by The Independent's James Cusick, discusses what we have learnt from it
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Friday 23 November 2012
The Leveson Report will be published this coming Thursday. After evidence from 378 individuals and 120 organisations, what did we actually learn about Britain’s press?
Max Mosley: There were things going on that were really completely irresponsible. Things were exposed that had long been suspected, but not generally known.
Charlotte Harris: From what victims and politicians said, a different story emerged from behind the front pages. Before Leveson a certain amount was taken for granted about what a newspaper said and why they said it. Now there is less naivety. News will no longer be taken at face value.
Mick Hume: I learnt this inquiry had nothing to do with the phone-hacking scandal, and was a pretext for pursuing a much broader agenda about purging the press of things not to the tastes of those who think “popular” is a dirty word.
MM: That simply overlooks what the public wanted. They were so shocked by what happened over [Milly] Dowler and the closure of the News of the World. It was essential the facts came out. The vast majority of the press behaved properly. But the small minority whose behaviour verged on being criminal … this has been exposed.
CH: Mick, you said “free press”. But what we had wasn’t really free. It was and has been censored by its proprietors, and a lot of this has to do with power and flying the flag.
MH: The whole debate has been premised on the idea that the British press has been too free to run wild. Actually, the truth is the British press is not nearly free or open enough.
Paul McMullan: Most people were lying in front of Leveson. A few people told the truth. I was one of them. Hardly anyone put their hands up to admit they did these things.
James Cusick: (moderating for The Independent): Will David Cameron get the report he wanted on Thursday?
MM: Leveson needed a big remit. The law was not being enforced. The police weren’t acting as they should have. The PCC had no means of enforcing their own rules.
CH: Milly Dowler triggered the inquiry. A debate on whether editors were acting responsibly was already in play. It was the “super-injunction spring”, and the public were making their voices heard. They said, “We want to know this; we don’t like the idea of secret courts, secret judgements and so on”.
MH: The one person now regretting he set up this inquiry is David Cameron. It’s a complete nightmare for him and will get worse. The phone-hacking scandal was already being looked at in the biggest police investigation in British criminal history.
JC: Paul, you mentioned in your inquiry evidence that the way newspapers operated was always down to who bought each title.
PM: You have a judge and jury. People pull out a pound and say “Yes I want to read that”. And sometimes they don’t if they are repulsed. I asked a taxi driver if he bought the NOTW. He said, “I used to, but since you stopped doing all that hacking stuff there’s nothing in it anymore.”
JC: So nothing you heard at Leveson embarrassed you? Not even your own testimony?
PM: Yes, I sort of turned into a typical NOTW whipping boy. But people seemed to have forgotten that it was me and Sean Hoare [the former NOTW showbiz writer, now deceased] who started it all. I wrote a really bad book ... about inside the NOTW. I rang up [Guardian journalist] Nick Davies and said I need a book deal. He said what you need is publicity – go on the record about phone hacking.
JC: Will this report help restore lost confidence in the press?
MH: None of the problems with the press are going to be addressed by tighter regulation.
MM: The press themselves now realise that what we had before was completely inadequate. So we have the Hunt-Black proposals [a self-regulation system to replace the PCC with membership and rules enforced by contracts]. But setting up some elaborate contract will be difficult to enforce.
JC: If Leveson recommends statutory regulation, what will that mean?
CH: Newspapers are framing this as state regulation versus self-regulation. What Leveson may recommend is simply an independent panel. I’ve been disturbed by articles describing even a dab of independence as MPs deciding what you’re going to read.
JC: So is there unnecessary hysteria?
CH: I don’t think there’s wide support for the interference that is being propagated on some front pages.
PM: I’m embarrassed about the number of British journalists that have been arrested. In the league table of arrests, Burma is No 1, Iran is No 2 and we are No 3 now. Isn’t that a worldwide embarrassment?
CH: But wouldn’t journalists be calling for people to be arrested? Isn’t that why you need a free press? And then, when journalists get arrested you go bonkers.
PM: Because they’ve tried to find the truth... I wrote a story about Broadmoor in 1991. Mental patients were going into Jimmy Savile’s pond and killing ducks and cooking them. He came down on me like a ton of bricks, using libel. We backed off. So he used libel to carry on being a paedophile.
CH: Which you didn’t reveal.
PM: Well if only I’d had his phone number.
JC: You would have hacked it?
CH: The NOTW hacked people’s phones just because there was the prospect of a good story.
PM: All the best stories come from fishing expeditions.
MM: There’s no question of censorship, nor of interfering with press rights. You’ve got rules. Leveson will probably say that we need an independent tribunal to enforce them.
JC: If the NOTW had been operating under some form of statutory control, would it have made any difference?
PM: No, of course not – you’d just try not to get caught a little better. They hacked phones too much and did it badly. They should have done it a little more selectively and they’d have got away with it. Instead we had a group of idiots in charge. They didn’t know how to go about an investigation. They wanted absolute proof about which celebrity or whoever was on the phone saying “Yeah let’s meet up on Wednesday for a shag.”
JC: Has Leveson made a difference?
MH: Absolutely. The danger here is not censorship, the danger is conformism, and being left with a more sanitised and tamed press.
CH: I’ve been doing phone hacking cases since 2007. The press knew. If it is such a free press and you’re worried about it becoming sanitised, why did that happen?
JC: Are we making a mistake in treating the press as one uniform unit? The Independent hasn’t broken any laws.
MM: The analogy is motorists: a vast majority of motorists obey the law, but for a small criminal minority you need laws to keep them under control.
CH: The vast majority of journalists are really good. I’ve never had the same problem with broadcast journalists as I have with the tabloids.
MH: You’ve really hit a major danger because the whole thing is premised on the idea there are two types of press: an ethical press and non-ethical press. And the tabloids have been at the dock, meeting every qualification of a show trial. The verdict was decided before anybody gave evidence. We just don’t know what the sentence is.
MM: The whole thing has been explained by Paul – his morality was don’t get caught. There’s a whole underworld that says that. On the free press, how can you say the press is free when two individuals control more than 60 per cent of it?
JC: Who failed in all of this ? The press, the police, the law?
PM: A journalist is sometimes supposed to break the law: 25 years ago when I started, being a journalist was the No 1 job for graduates. Now journalists are held in low esteem whereas all I have ever tried to do was work for the benefit of society and occasionally hacking David Beckham.
MM: It’s your 25 years on the job that’s done that Paul.
MH: If journalists had not been prepared to break the law and outrage every convention of society we would never have had a free press. All of my greatest heroes of journalism, from John Wilkes onwards, were complete rogues, scoundrels and lawbreakers who defied every single convention.
JC: Sir Brian Leveson isn’t going to decide what the law should be. That will be left to Parliament. Does David Cameron have a problem here?
CH: There will be some outcry from newspapers.
MM: It will be a balance of which is the least pleasant course for him to take. He won’t want to upset all the press.
MH: Mr Cameron set the inquiry up in a panic and he’ll be panicking even more. He signed a blank cheque, telling Parliament that whatever Leveson came up with the Government would have to abide by. He cannot backtrack from that. He’s caught between a Hugh Grant and a Michael Gove.
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