After the Leveson report, justice will remain just as elusive as the snark
Journalists will find legitimate business harder, says an investigative reporter
Sunday 02 December 2012
Well, your lordship, it isn't often – fortunately – I get to address the bench. But now that you have weighed all the evidence and passed judgment, my moment arrives. Not so much a plea of mitigation – more a curmudgeonly muttering from an old lag on the press bench. I am struck by how judges and journalists have more in common than they would like to admit. It isn't merely that if you ask many of them to change a light bulb they would sit there holding it up expecting the world to revolve around them. It isn't simply the skill to listen to the suicide-inducing drone of the self-interested boring for Britain. Nor is it the uncanny resemblance between Private Eye's inspired caricature of Mr Justice Cocklecarrot, clueless in a world of popular culture, and some newspaper executives, or the fact that journalism, like the law, particularly the criminal law, with which your lordship is so familiar, each has its own share of rakes and characters of infamy.
It is that, at heart, we are all looking for justice.
Such a statement, in the light of the myriad abuses of power your inquiry has illuminated, may sound a little hollow. It is, without doubt, the culture and ethics of the print press, especially the national press, that has got us in this pickle. Those trampled underfoot in the reckless pursuit of sensational stories deserve proper redress. The architecture of how they obtain it is not my concern here. My chief beef is that some of your recommendations may have unintended consequences.
Your endorsement of the National Union of Journalists' call for "conscience clauses" and the creation of whistleblowing hotlines for reporters pressured into behaving unlawfully or immorally certainly helps. They aren't cure-alls but they help to resist pressure from managers, under the cosh from proprietors, who themselves have one eye on falling newspaper circulations and another on the irresistible lure of the Eldorado (ie lawless Wild West) that is the internet.
Your suggestion that off-the-record briefings should cease is most definitely not helpful. The struggle to ascertain good, credible, authoritative information is a Sisyphian task at the best of times. Direct contact with officials is increasingly limited by official gatekeepers. The need to record every meeting with reporters may well enhance accountability, but it will do so at the cost of more meaningful conversations where the truth is imparted to aid us scribblers to inform the public of what is really going on instead of what ministers really want the public to think. It will help to create an atmosphere, already oppressive, where sources are inhibited from speaking. It can be clearly demonstrated that whistleblowing legislation is so flawed in its application that so-called lawful alternatives are actually a deterrent. Closing off routes to the media will not improve matters.
Similarly, your recommendations about changes to the Data Protection Act will have an equally chilling effect on reporters' efforts to get and protect information. A battle over what is in the public domain and what should be kept from the public glare is a scrap to be fought over another day, but your proposals to curb the excesses of the unlawful trade in confidential data clearly has daunting implications for reporters. The threat of jail and tougher penalties will discourage some reporters and will unquestionably aid the arguments of legal advisers seeking to prevent publication. I don't know whether it is your intention or not, but painful experience leads me to the conclusion that fewer peaks will be conquered if the sherpas are bogged down in the foothills covering their backsides.
It was a very talented barrister, whom I respect, who first likened the search for justice to Lewis Carroll's hunt for the snark – the "impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature". Having witnessed your lordship's work up close in the law courts – prosecuting Rose West, acquitting Barry George and mastering press barons – I am confident that dragging another anchor to that vessel is not your intention, but I fear that is what it will do.
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