When he established the Leveson Inquiry, the Prime Minister endeavoured to make the judge’s remit as broad as possible. It was to examine the ethics and practices of the British press.
David Cameron was motivated by political expediency. It was in response to the furore surrounding the revelation that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked. Except that he could not confine Leveson to hacking because the police were also investigating, properly at long last. Plus, he had cause to bring other newspaper groups into the net, to deflect the judge’s probe away from News International and his close friends there.
By widening the brief he was able to soak up other controversies surrounding the press, such as its treatment of the McCanns and Chris Jefferies, the Bristol teacher wrongly pilloried for murder. The most vocal critics of the press, evinced by the Hacked Off lobbying group, would be pacified.
I’ve no issue with much of Leveson. Where he chose to look, I thought the examination was as thorough as could be expected. Where he chose to look. Because where I do take exception is with the pick and mix nature of his study. He did not probe the activities of the PR trade, did not stop to wonder why public relations practitioners now outnumber journalists – and presumably must do something to justify their salaries and bonuses. He ignored lobbying and how that can influence the press.
In fact there were whole areas left untouched that anyone seriously inquiring into the ethics and practices of the press might reasonably have been expected to target. One such is sport. Have you ever asked yourself why the press conferences for team bosses and players are so laudatory, why the questioning is so unchallenging, why a substantial amount of sports reporting is supine and one-dimensional?
This week, Manchester United played Real Madrid in the Champions League. Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, chose to drop Wayne Rooney, his superstar forward. After United lost, our reporter Ian Herbert, who has excellent contacts within the club, wrote that the decision to exclude Rooney for such an important fixture “reflected the manager’s view that the 27-year-old is not dealing with the weight and fitness issues which he believes have been a problem since the start of the season”.
Added Herbert: “The strains in the relationship between Ferguson and Rooney have been evident at the Carrington training ground for some months, with the manager’s concerns about the player’s fitness rooted in the Scot’s decision to say that he ‘wasn’t as fit’ as the other players when returning pre-season.”
Others made similar suggestions, but were not quite so explicit. What was Ferguson’s response? To ban The Independent from his Carrington press conferences.
When we write articles that upset politicians, companies and other organisations, they will contact me to complain. We will deal with it, and we will move on. And we will continue to be allowed into their press conferences.
Not Manchester United and Ferguson. Annoy them and they will deny access. There’s no attempt at discussion and seeking an accommodation. As editor, I feel torn. I want us to stay true to our values, to our duty to report as we find, without fear or favour. I’m mindful, though, that we may miss something by being barred and that might mean we cannot provide the same service to you, the reader.
We can remain outside or toe the line and neuter our reporting. It’s a tricky dilemma. Lord Justice Leveson, where are you when we need you?