Leading article: Leveson: what have we learnt?

 

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The first week at the Leveson Inquiry has certainly been dramatic. It was impossible not be both moved and appalled by the heart-rending testament of the parents of murdered children and the families of those hounded beyond endurance. Tales of being forced to move house, and a journalist's letter found in a five-year old's schoolbag, can only be a matter of unreserved condemnation.

But it is no disrespect to those whose lives have been blighted by media intrusion to question what has actually been achieved. While such revelations are certainly a source of profound distaste, they are hardly a surprise. That some journalists behave in a despicable manner is no shock, as the response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a Paris underpass proved. Moreover, it does not take a full-blown judicial inquiry to clarify either what is acceptable, or even what is legal.

That said, there is a need to set out detailed and substantial complaints. And there is also some value in creating a public forum to help to clear the air. But the Leveson proceedings will become both more interesting and more valuable towards the middle of next week, when the broadly similar complaints of the victims give way to what will hopefully be more nuanced observations of those on other sides of the issue. It is time to hear from some journalists, both tabloid and broadsheet; from some of those, such as Alastair Campbell, who have worked so hard to manipulate the press for their own ends; from privacy experts and members of the police.

Sections of the British media have behaved in a shameful manner. It is right for the consequences of their activities to be exposed to daylight. But the Leveson Inquiry must do more than offer catharsis, and must also avoid becoming a public whipping of the media as a whole. Rather, it must answer complex and nuanced questions about where privacy and public interest overlap, about how a vigorous fourth estate functions in the modern world. And critically, amid all the justifiable fury, the journalist's role as the upholder of free speech must not be forgotten.

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