His Honour's Big Blue Bible: Your 10-minute guide to the Leveson report
Admit it. You may be an intelligent, worldly sort, but you'd rather flick through Mail Online's relentless fare of food fads and 'celebrities' than plough through the Leveson report. But, because we know that you know it's important, James Cusick reads it all so you don't have to
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.
Sunday 02 December 2012
Q. An Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press by the Right Honourable Lord Justice Leveson. At 1,987 pages in four volumes, plus a 46-page executive summary, it's the War and Peace of government-ordered inquiries, right?
A. Tolstoy's novel is only 1,440 pages. Proust's In Search of Lost Time is 4,211 pages over seven volumes. So Leveson is just under half a Marcel.
Q. The report recommends a new "independent self-regulation" system that is underpinned by legislation. Leveson says the legal enforcement bit is nothing more than ensuring independence and cannot be characterised as "regulation of the press". So are we heading back to the 17th century or not?
A. No, the years of it being the king's prerogative to say who could operate a press, and rules about printing only politically "neutral" material, aren't coming back. Although David Cameron promised when he ordered this inquiry last year that he would back Sir Brian Leveson's recommendations provided they weren't "bonkers", he's now decided to oppose the report's key point – that a "culture of reckless and outrageous journalism" that "wreaked havoc" on the lives of innocent people needs the law to change it.
Q. Hold on, that's £5m for the inquiry, a year of taking evidence, and we're in the same place we were after being outraged and speechless about how the News of the World hacked Milly Dowler's phone. Did the report have anything to say about victims and other press malpractice?
A. Volumes actually, but Leveson needed to be careful. A major criminal trial next year will have lots more to say on phone hacking. But parts of Fleet Street evidently knew more than they let on. The report has plenty to say on other "dark arts" such as blagging, bribery, corruption, email hacking, harassment and surveillance, and points to the 2003 Operation Motorman report, which revealed an extensive web of people selling personal information to journalists. That no journalist was convicted and the Motorman report wasn't followed up was a "wasted opportunity", Leveson says.
Q. So the press isn't perfect. Is that news?
A. No, but it's a key element of this report. Leveson maintains the press "rode roughshod" over people without any justifiable public interest. Victims' stories are peppered throughout the four volumes. Christopher Jefferies, the Bristol landlord, and his treatment at the hands of a feral pack are described as a story that acquired "irresistible momentum and was running out of control".
Q. It goes beyond complaining celebs then?
A. Indeed. Kate and Gerry McCann are described as becoming "a commodity" and "a piece of public property" because of the gross inaccuracies and libels in the press after their daughter Madeleine went missing in Portugal in 2007. The Daily Star and Daily Express are singled out for criticism. The report says the press behaved as if the McCanns had "waived their rights to privacy". The treatment of Gordon and Sarah Brown, Hugh Grant and the parents of 11-year-old Sebastian Bowles, who was killed in a coach crash in Switzerland this year, is part of a catalogue of press failures that Leveson describes as "egregious behaviour" characterised by "recklessness in prioritising sensational stories".
Q. Internet sites and blog pages are still churning out pretty wild stuff. The report must have plenty to say on this.
A. Sorry to disappoint, but there's barely four pages. The web is apparently an "ethical vacuum" whereas the press operates with a kind of moral code.
Q. So the debate is back to where Leveson started – who guards the guardians?
A. The Leveson report recommends an independent watchdog, at arm's length from the press itself, drawing up its own rules, with fines of up £1m imposed for the worst rule-breakers, and for the victims there will better, faster and inexpensive legal remedies. The legislation, it claims, would mean the Government has a legal duty to protect press freedom. And those who want to operate outside the system will have Ofcom as their overlord.
Q. What if a future government doesn't like the way the rules are operating?
A. Hold on, you're getting beyond the report now. Don't you want to know what Leveson says about the police and our elected politicians?
Q. Do they come in for a judicial kicking too?
A. No they don't. The report accepts that Scotland Yard was "too close" to News International, and had a "defensive mindset" over the News of the World. But the Met's decision to limit the initial phone hacking inquiry was justified. Although the man leading the Met's review of hacking, John Yates, failed to inform the hundreds of victims police knew about, there's no evidence to suggest undue influence or corruption. Leveson sees "no basis" for challenging "at any stage" the integrity of the police. Errors of judgement – yes. Poor decision making – yes. Questions over police integrity – no.
Q. Sorry, can you say that again?
A. You heard correctly. Recommendations here include senior officers keeping public records of all meetings with the media; banning officers from taking media jobs for a year after they've left the force; and changes to the way the police name or identify suspects. Oh, and the "off the record" should now be described as "non-reportable".
Q. You'll be telling me next that the report describes politicians as veritable saints, ruthless in their desire to keep Rupert Murdoch in check, and that the Commons is filled with Florence Nightingales and ministers armed only with swords of justice!
A. Ah, so you've read that section already, have you? The report does say that politicians got too close to the press and that this didn't exactly benefit the voting public. Leveson does note "unaccountable influences" but says there is "no evidence at all of explicit, covert deals between senior politicians and newspaper proprietors".
Q. Look, everyone knows these relationships are more subtle than that.
A. Funny you should say that. Leveson admits "… these very powerful relationships are more subtle than that". On the Sun King, Leveson has a look at Rupert Murdoch's relations with PMs past and present. He says he found no evidence of "express deals" with Fleet Street's "Dark Lord" but diplomatically admits: "Sometimes the very greatest power is exercised without having to ask …."
Q. Any more on the News Corp chief?
A. There's a telling section on how Murdoch reacted to the huge pay-out to Max Mosley over the News of the Screws' false Nazi-orgy allegations story. Leveson said the fact that Murdoch had not even bothered to read the legal judgment that cost his company record damages "says something about the degree to which his organisation engages with the ethical direction of its newspapers".
Q. What about BSkyB? That as some of the juiciest evidence heard at the Royal Courts of Justice.
A. Judges don't use words like "juicy". But you clearly misjudged what you heard from the former culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and the ex-chair of News Corp Europe, James Murdoch. Leveson found "no credible evidence" that Hunt was biased towards Murdoch's takeover bid for BSkyB. However, although the report says the bid was "commendably handled", it admits there was "a serious hidden problem" over the intimate and persistent emails and texts that flew between Hunt's adviser, Adam Smith, and the Murdoch lobbyist Fréd Michel.
Q. What's Leveson's big valedictory line?
A. Directed at both the public and politicians, Leveson states he "cannot and will not recommend another last-chance saloon for the press". But that is exactly what Downing Street is contemplating.
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