Corporate Power, Lies about Leveson, and Why the Royals Don't Deserve Privacy
Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)
The newspapers' response to the Leveson report illustrates perfectly what is wrong with them. Quoting Milton, Wilkes and the US founding fathers, they frame the story as an argument over freedom of the press and its role in protecting us from tyranny. What Leveson proposes, however, has no bearing on newspapers' capacity to call power to account. His remedies are designed to limit the extent to which the press can harass, mock, insult, bully, threaten, intrude upon, lie about and generally ruin the lives of the weak and powerless, including not only the McCanns, the Dowlers, Christopher jefferies, victims of terrorism, families of dead soldiers and so on, but also the relatives, employees and friends of those loosely described as celebrities.
The apposite quotation is not from Jefferson or Wilkes--who had no conception that the press existed to do anything other than annoy governments--but from the Chicago journalist F P Dunne: "The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." The British press today often does the reverse, training far more scrutiny on, for example, benefit claimants, asylum seekers and gypsies than it does on cheating corporations. It is an instrument of corporate power, and the citizenry needs protection from its excesses as well as from the government's.
Newspaper executives say they don't want government stooges going into newsrooms telling journalists what they can and cannot write. No, indeed. Journalists already have instructions from the stooges of Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, David and Frederick Barclay and Richard Desmond.
Not that Leveson proposes any role for a government stooge. His recommended legislation (his report says) "would not give any rights to parliament, to the government, or to any regulatory (or other) body to prevent newspapers from publishing any material whatsoever". Nor would it require them to publish anything except corrections and apologies.
This is one of several misconceptions about the report deliberately propagated by newspapers. Leveson doesn't want a quango; he wants a regulatory body set up by the press. Legislation would merely give it official recognition. This would allow publications that join it and thus participate in its arbitration procedures to apply for reduced legal costs when those who allege libel or invasion of privacy insist on going to court. As the former editor of two cash-strapped publications, I can assure you that the cheap arbitration provision will be of priceless value to small newspapers and magazines. …