Magazine article Soundings

Leveson and the Prospects for Media Reform: Can the Press Barons Be Brought under Control?

Magazine article Soundings

Leveson and the Prospects for Media Reform: Can the Press Barons Be Brought under Control?

Article excerpt

Just before the phone hacking crisis broke in July 2011, the Westminster Media Forum held a seminar on the prospects for future communications legislation. In a discussion focused on how best to deregulate the industry to ensure future growth, one audience member raised a question about whether legislation should include non-commercial priorities such as ethical considerations. This was met with stunned silence, followed by the dismissal of the idea by Google UK's public policy advisor as 'old-fashioned'. (1) Yet less than twenty-four hours later David Cameron had announced that there would be a full public inquiry into the practice, culture and ethics of the press.

This anecdote is a useful reminder of how far the conversation has come since summer 2011. Following the Leveson Inquiry and the four-volume report published in November 2012, there is no way that a focus on the ethical dimensions of news can now be dismissed as a thing of the past. Crucially, Leveson has provided a frame for discussing the behaviour of the press that the mainstream media has been unable to ignore. Stories that would otherwise have been interpreted as isolated incidents have been woven into a wider narrative about media power and responsibility, from the decision not to publish topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge to the long-awaited report repudiating the calumnies against the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.

There is considerable evidence that the British public broadly accepts the need for tougher measures than either the press or politicians are willing to countenance. This support can be seen in strong polling for reforms - 79 per cent in favour of a regulator backed by statute and 76 per cent in favour of limits on media. (2) Strikingly, it can also be seen in the comment threads beneath articles on the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail websites, many of which reject the editorial line that minor alterations to the status quo are an acceptable course of action. (3)

Events will have overtaken us by the time this article is published, but no doubt the central question will remain: is there the political courage in Westminster to side with the public against the unacceptable behaviour of media corporations, and to secure meaningful reforms to our media system that will change the way power is held to account?

What we learned from the inquiry

There can be no doubt that the Leveson Inquiry yielded a treasure trove of anecdotes, statistics and evidence about the often collusive partnerships between press, politicians and police. We found out that David Cameron found time to hold 1,404 meetings with 'media figures' while in opposition, one of which involved a personal visit to Rupert Murdoch in Santorini in order to 'build a relationship' with him. We learned of the countless texts between former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks and Cameron, many of which have yet to be made public. We discovered that there were 191 phone calls, 158 emails and 1,056 texts between News Corp and the Culture Secretary's office during its bid to take full control of BSkyB.

We heard from Sue Akers, former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, that the Sun had set up a 'network of corrupted officials' and created a 'culture of illegal payments' in the police and other public services. We now know that there were 5,795 names in the notebook of the private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who worked for the News of the World and who was jailed for phone hacking in 2007.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations would disappoint, given his extremely wide terms of reference. Even a year of hearings and a two-thousand-page report could only ever have scratched the surface of a remit that stretched beyond phone hacking and press standards, into the murky world of the relationships between news organisations, police and politicians. The breadth of the inquiry undoubtedly lent it much of its power, and this in itself was a major coup for campaigners. …

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