As investigative theatre goes, the Leveson Inquiry has been top-notch. As a route to embarrassing individuals for their past performance, it has excelled. As a way of unearthing previously secret information, it has been gripping.
But as a route for reforming the media? That’s a rather different story.
Some things have already been achieved. The Press Complaints Commission has already been sent to the retirement home for failed regulators and politicians have already been shamed into distancing themselves from newspaper moguls. It will be a long time before Ed Miliband repeats this sort of photo op, for example.
There is, however, an awful lot left to do, especially as Lord Leveson has not been looking at the underlying causes. As I wrote much earlier in the proceedings:
“Follow the money”. It’s a cliché of investigative journalism for a very good reason. If you want to get to the heart of what is really going on, knowing who has paid what to whom frequently exposes the real action being hidden away behind warm words, evasive statements and muttered “no comments”…
[But] the inquiry isn’t following the money.
Instead, it is studiously ignoring the money. For where are the advertisers, the sellers [i.e. newsagents] or the purchasers of newspapers?
When you buy a newspaper, sell a newspaper or place an advert, you’re funding journalism. You may be funding a brave investigator unearthing corruption. Or a sordid fly-by-night who bullies, lies and intimidates. Either way, it is your cash transaction that is keeping them in business.
How then to reform the media in a meaningful way, and one in which the values of a free press but also the dangers of an interfering state are remembered? For if there’s one thing worse than an irresponsible press, it is a press under the thumb of the state.
1. Want a tax break? Be responsible
First, there should be a simple end to the “Desmond problem”, that is the decision of one newspaper magnate to opt out of industry regulation. For the state to micro-manage regulation or to try to come up with new definitions of what is or isn’t journalism gets into murky waters very quickly. There is, however, one useful, clear and safe, power to use: the big tax break given to newspapers by virtue of them being VAT-exempt.
Oddly enough, journalists who decry deficits and call for fiscal restraint tend not to mention their industry is the beneficiary of a tax break which many others can only look on with envy… but even so, it is easy to see why newspapers are seen to have a special benefit to society that justifies special treatment.
A newspaper magnate that turns their back on self-regulation is rejecting that idea of having a special, responsible role in society. So the government’s response should be very simple: if you refuse to take part in newspaper regulation, whatever form it takes in the future, you don’t get the industry tax break.
2. Reform libel law and RIPA
Second, other pending legal reforms that will tame the excesses of the press must go ahead. Libel law should be reformed, not only so that it cannot be used by the powerful as a tool to intimidate critics into silence, but also so the weak and poor can use it as a tool to get justice from the rich and mighty.
The failed Interception of Communications Commissioner should also be sent to that retirement home alongside the Press Complaints Commission. Both failed to spot and stop journalists breaking the law. Both failed and both must be replaced.
3. Hold journalists responsible for their own actions
Third, the replacement for the Press Complaints Commission should regulate not only press titles, but the people who work in them. Far too many journalists park away their ethics when they turn up to work, muttering excuses about how they have to feed the family and how one day they will move on to another title or another job with a healthier role. (It is no coincidence that the Mail pays such good salaries and still has a final salary pension scheme.)
When it came to regulation, the Press Complaints Commission let such part-time moralists hide behind their newspaper titles, excusing their own behaviour even whilst writing stories demanding the highest ethical standards of others. Instead, its replacement should name and rule on the journalists, managers and editors responsible in the cases that come before it.
It is an individual who taps the words, a manager who directs the story and an editor who decides to publish. Individuals, not a faceless company; both they and their company should be responsible for their acts. Just like, in fact, what newspapers demand of others they report on.
Fourth, let the press be free – but transparent. We can all imagine some stories in which edgy journalist tactics are justifiable and others where their deployment is abhorrent. Paparazzi-style photos for a story expressing horror that a celebrity has put on a few grams? Dreadful. But zoom lens photos taken without permission revealing a secret meeting where a politician who condemns arms sales in public is actually brokering a deal in private? Yes please. More please. Have an award please.
Investigative journalism is essential; the techniques it relies on should not be banned. In the absence of any detailed consideration of what counts as ‘the public interest’ by Leveson, restricting them to stories that meets a public interest test does very little.
Instead, let us have transparency. If the media uses one of these potentially vital but also potentially dodgy techniques in a story, tell us at the end of the story. Trust the public to judge whether it was justified when told, “The photographs in this story were taken on private property without permission” or “We did not present the allegations to Chris Jones before publishing the story”.
Editors fall over each other to say they use the public interest test and that it justifies their acts. So fine, be transparent and let the public see.
5. Journalists need to be less kind to each other
Fifth, and hardest, journalists need to stop being so nice to each other. The occasional personal vendetta enlivens gossip columns now and again, but fundamentally dog does not eat dog when it comes to British journalists. The Guardian’s pursuit of phone hacking has been the rare exception. Instead, newspaper mostly turn a blind eye to each other’s activities and radio and TV turn their eyes on newspaper ethics even less.
Sustained accountability of institutions, their leaders and their behaviour is what newspapers dish out to others and don’t apply to themselves.
It is simply a matter of taking journalists at their own word. If you really believe in holding the powerful and those in the public eye to account for their behaviour, then don’t leave out some of the most powerful just because they are in the same industry as you.
Making dog eat dog is not easy. Neither Leveson nor others can push a magic button or implement a special rule to enforce it. It requires a more subtle and more long-term approach, but it requires that nonetheless.
Deliver those five reforms and Leveson can be more than a report of the past; it can be a major influence on the future too.
Addendum – a reform plan such as this is all the more important given the subsequent free pass the Leveson Inquiry has given to politicians complaining about undue media power without questioning the occasions when the problem has been the reverse: far too much political power over the media.