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The Ropey Report: Devil of findings is in the detail

Politicians profess their enthusiasm for implementing the Leveson recommendations ‘in full’. Yet a closer reading of his blockbuster report is revealing some  awkward anomalies. Martin Hickman reports

Investigative journalism and new rules for police

While recognising that police officers sometimes legitimately contact the press to air grievances or expose wrongdoing, Lord Justice Leveson recommends forces keep a tighter check on who is speaking to the media.

He backs Association of Chief Police Officers’ guidance that senior officers should record the date and identity of the journalists they meet, and also it would be “good practice” if lowers ranks did likewise. He advises against police officers having an informal drink with journalists, though does not suggest a “blanket ban”.

At the same time, the report acknowledges that police officers have little confidence in existing whistleblowing procedures within forces or the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). To remedy that, he suggests that greater prominence be given to the IPCC’s whistleblowing hotline, that an Assistant Commissioner in each force is designated as a source of guidance on ethics and that HM Inspectorate of Constabulary carry out unannounced inspections on police chiefs.

The problem here is what happens if informal, or unauthorised, contact between police officers and the press is discouraged and enhanced police whistleblowing systems fail. Important stories often only reach the public because insiders blow the whistle.

The Murdoch  mystery: were they cleared or criticised?

In the US, NBC said that Lord Justice Leveson had suggested the possibility of a “determined cover-up” on the part of a senior figure in the Murdoch empire. It claimed that Lord Justice Leveson’s report had concluded that either there was a serious breakdown in governance, or a failure in high places to take appropriate action to allegations of widespread criminality.

The network continued, in a report on its website: “These are words that will concern lawmakers in the US, where News Corporation has many media arms.” Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald also highlighted the criticism of corporate governance inside the Murdoch businesses. According to Le Monde, however, Rupert and James Murdoch were “cleared of all responsibility for the scandals that have tainted the British media” and “Shareholders of US media group News Corp can finally breathe a breath of fresh air”. Perhaps it had read a different part of the report.

Nikhil Kumar

The dodgy detail that was pasted in from the internet

Lord Justice Leveson forgot one of the elementary rules of journalism when he compiled the section of his report that covered the history of this newspaper. Journalism students are taught at college that when researching on the internet, they should not assume that the first site they come to is reliable. In his report the judge warned that inaccuracy in newspapers, “caused significant concern.” He also claimed that “the Independent was founded in 1986 by the journalists Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover and Brett Straub...”

The first two names are correct, but who is Brett Straub? His name first appeared in the Wikipedia entry on The Independent on 27 October 2011, when someone using the IP address removed the name of Matthew Symonds, genuinely one of this newspaper’s three founding journalists, and inserted “Brett Staub”. This was the only contribution to Wikipedia made from that IP address, which is registered in Pomona, in California. It may or may not be a coincidence that there is a Brett Straub on Facebook who graduated from Cal Poly, in Pomona, and describes himself as “a lazy bum-like person who loves cars and hanging out with friends and family.”

The error stayed on the Wikipedia until it was spotted and corrected on 10 November this year – too late, unfortunately, to spare Lord Justice Leveson from being caught out making the basic error of cutting and pasting from Wikipedia without checking. 

Andy McSmith

It will be easier for detectives to search through journalistic notes

As a result of News International’s obstruction of the police inquiry into phone hacking, Lord Justice Leveson recommends making it easier to search for journalistic material that might assist investigations.

He wants to remove a legal requirement on the police that they have tried “other methods of obtaining the material… without success” before obtaining  a search warrant.

He recommends the Home Office consider amending the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 so journalistic notes and documents can only “be held in confidence” if they are “subject to an enforceable or lawful undertaking, restriction or obligation”. It means news organisations would have to meet a stiffer test to protect sources.

Guidelines threaten police ability to appeal for information

Partly motivated by the appalling treatment of Christopher Jeffries, above, Lord Justice Leveson recommends that, except in certain exceptional circumstances (for example, where there may be an immediate risk to the public), the names or identifying details of those arrested or suspected of a crime “should not be released to the press or the public” by police. But police officers use media appeals to gather information about crimes. Is it right that, once an arrest has been made, the media should not be allowed to report who has been detained?

The new media revolution that barely rated a mention

With the explosion of the electronic media, Lord Justice Leveson might have been expected to pay more attention to blogging, social networks and other forms of digital expression outside of the newspaper industry. Some commentators have wondered whether, by ignoring such phenomena as rogue tweeters (such as Sally Bercow, right), the judge was missing the significance of the rapid rise of the (unregulated) blogosphere – with one likening his role to a “stagecoach inspector in the 1850s”. There are just four pages on the World Wide Web and five on blogging, in a  1987-page report.

New data protection measures could see good journalists jailed

Lord Justice Leveson recommends allowing reporters to hold confidential data for general newsgathering purposes only when it is absolutely necessary for a specific article scheduled for publication. He also recommends introducing a term of up to two years imprisonment for recklessly breaching the Data Protection Act. Newspapers have already suggested this could lead to the jailing of journalists acquiring sensitive data for stories in the public interest. In practice, it is unlikely that prosecutions would be brought in such cases, but increasing the sanctions and breadth of laws that can be used against journalists is a concern to many within journalism who already feel themselves encumbered by strict laws on defamation and contempt of court.