Opinion: Will Leveson changes bring about more factual EU coverage?

Buried away in the Leveson Report is a denunciation of those parts of the press which systematically misrepresent the European Union.

Pro-Europeans like the Liberal Democrats will welcome this recognition of a chronic irritant.

Editors of the offending papers rarely if ever give the opportunity to correct errors. Now, although the anti-Europe campaigns will continue, we will be able to use Leveson to point the finger at malevolent editors. That is not press censorship. It is simply warning readers not to be taken in by campaigns of nonsense.

Lord Justice Leveson, in the second volume of his report (pages 687-688), states:

There is certainly clear evidence of misreporting of European issues. The Daily Mail reported an apparent EU ban on plastic bags.

Leveson’s judgment?  It

 …was based on a deliberate or careless misrepresentation of EU proposals.

He widens his concern citing the evidence given by by Tony Blair:

The cumulative impact can have serious consequences. Mr Blair explained that the misinformation published about Europe by some parts of the press made it difficult for him to adopt particular policies or to achieve certain political ends in Europe that he might otherwise have done.

Leveson agrees with Blair and his press spokesman Alistair Campbell when they gave evidence about manufactured stories. Newspapers are entitled to be Eurosceptic but they shouldn’t make up nonsense about Europe and report it as fact.

Leveson’s conclusion goes wider:

There can be no objection to agenda journalism (which necessarily involves the fusion of fact and comment) but that cannot trump a requirement to report stories accurately.  Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code explicitly, and in my view rightly, recognises the right of a free press to be patinas; strong, even very strong opinions can legitimately influence the choice of story, placement of story and angle from which a story is reported. But that must not lead to fabrication, or deliberate or careless misrepresentation of the facts.

Alistair Campbell listed bans or intended bans imposed by “Brussels” or “Europe” on kilts, curries, mushy peas, paper rounds, Caerphilly cheese, charity shops, bulldogs, bent sausages and cucumbers, the British Army, lollipop ladies, British loaves, British-made lavatories, the passport crest, lorry drivers who wear glasses…

It will always be hard to get a fair hearing for the pro-Europe message. But Leveson has exposed the persistent malevolence of the Daily Mail, Express, Sun, Star and even the supposedly quality Daily Telegraph. So let’s expose nonsense when it is published. That will become even more important if Britain moves toward an in-out EU referendum.

* Scottish Liberal Democrat and former newspaper editor Willis Pickard is a member of the committee of the European Movement in Scotland

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11 Comments

  • Alex Matthews 5th Dec '12 - 9:47am

    Unfortunately with the Tories still retaining a vested interest in keeping the papers happy this will never happen and the same reporters who defame Human Rights will still continue to use those same rights as a defense for their lies. How sad, I am not sure if I should laugh or cry at the irony.

    Both the EU and the Court of Justice are just going to continue to defamed, and it is now up to us to be brave and finally be shameless in promoting the EU. (Without having to rely on lies.)

  • And what about the misrepresentation on the other side? For example, all the papers which said we ought to join the euro, or the papers who tell us we would lose the European market if we left the EU.

    I don’t actually mean anyone should “use Leveson to point the finger at malevolent editors” on the other side. It’s just that the idea of invoking an apparently impartial authority (that is appointed by politicians) to rule on what newspapers report is as ridiculous as it is offensive to freedom of speech and the press. Freedom of speech isn’t freedom if you’re only allowed to say what is approved to be factually correct.

  • This raises disturbing questions. It is difficult to believe that a random group of people (journalists) drawn from the population will tend to all “spontaneously” adopt a systematic hostile attitude on any given issue (bar possibly something that effects their pay and conditions) and engage in constant misreporting on that issue. As such, the question has to arise as to how “free” the “free” press is in practise.

    Perhaps there is a need to consider “institutional defamation” to give institutions the opportunity to seek legal redress when the press constantly misrepresents what they are doing?

  • Richard Dean 5th Dec '12 - 10:15am

    No it won’t. Not while politicians continue to refuse to acknowledge their responsibility to provide usable information about EU matters to the press, such as interesting stories, developments, votes, scandals, etc. Blair and Campbell are prime examples of this failure. So the press fill the vacuuum with whatever they can scrape or imagine.

  • “Perhaps there is a need to consider “institutional defamation” to give institutions the opportunity to seek legal redress when the press constantly misrepresents what they are doing?”

    Such as political parties, perhaps?

    Surely people aren’t really going to start suggesting that the courts (or even worse a regulator ultimately dependent on the government for its authority) should be deciding whether political parties are being “misrepresented”?

    This sort of talk makes me extremely sceptical about the continual claims that politicians really don’t want to control the press. On the contrary, I think control of the press would be the Holy Grail to many politicians.

  • Martin Lowe 5th Dec '12 - 11:40am

    @Julian (10:02)

    “Freedom of speech isn’t freedom if you’re only allowed to say what is approved to be factually correct.”

    And freedom of speech isn’t freedom if some peoples’ speech is freer than others.
    Which happens to be the case right now.

  • Alex Matthews 5th Dec '12 - 1:21pm

    “Freedom of speech isn’t freedom if you’re only allowed to say what is approved to be factually correct.”

    There is a difference between wanting the press to not outright lie, and wanting only facts. That is why the English language has developed three different words:

    Opinion=A personal belief on a matter or issue.
    Fact=A scientifically proven statement.
    Truth=Something which can be seen as correct without having to a scientifically proven fact.

    I have no problem with the press printing opinions and truths, but I will not stand and support freedom of speech being used to justify lying.

  • The trouble with any attempt to limit comment to “factually correct” statements – apart from the virtual impossibility of policing and preventing – is that there is usually some scintilla of basis for the story in question. For example there is no euro action concerning jam jars for charity events but there are rules about jam jars in businesses.

    The real point is the one raised by Richard Dean – “politicians continue to refuse to acknowledge their responsibility to provide usable information about EU matters to the press [so the press] fill the vacuum with whatever they can scrape or imagine.” Pro-europeans (including most Liberal Democrats) have been utterly craven in their failure to stand up for the EU and spell out its crucial advantages for the UK. Already arguments are being put forward that the main thrust of the Lib Dem European election campaign in 2014 should be to present ourselves as the people most likely to reform Europe – presumably in a direction that would appease eurosceptics. Some hope! When will we realise that there is a growing number in the UK – including many business people – who are very concerned at the slide towards the EU exit door. It is their votes we should be seeking by mounting a robust defence of the EU and seeking maximum press coverage for it. This is entirely consistent with working for necessary reforms. For example I would like to see us mounting newsworthy demonstrations against the ludicrous monthly decamp to Strasbourg including sit-ins in Brussels by the major proportion of MEPs who are with us on this.

  • Martin Lowe 6th Dec '12 - 4:11pm

    @denis

    “Pro-europeans (including most Liberal Democrats) have been utterly craven in their failure to stand up for the EU and spell out its crucial advantages for the UK.”

    There’s more to it than that – what newspapers are going to honestly report a pro-European who makes such a statement?

  • Alex Macfie 7th Dec '12 - 1:50pm

    Denis:

    Already arguments are being put forward that the main thrust of the Lib Dem European election campaign in 2014 should be to present ourselves as the people most likely to reform Europe – presumably in a direction that would appease eurosceptics.

    I think we should present ourselves as Euro-reformists because the whole point of the European Parliament is that it is the democratic body that determines the actual laws that apply to the EU. We should be campaigning on what our MEPs would do to make a liberal EU, and that means supporting reform (in a LIBERAL direction) of its laws and institutions.
    Imagine if UK general elections were fought like EP elections. All candidates and parties would be assumed to be either uncritically supportive of everything that the UK government of the day, and Whitehall, does, or opposed the the principle of the United Kingdom. This is obviously ridiculous. And it is equally ridiculous for EU election campaigning. Wanting to reform the EU does NOT mean Euro-scepticism. We as Lib Dems should publicly challenge the media lie that the only possible positions on the EU are uncritical support or withdrawal, by campaigning in 2014 on the things that our MEPs would do to make the EU more liberal. Euro-reformism means regaridng the EU as an established fact, and thinking about how best you want it to work. As liberals, we should be saying we want it to work in a liberal way.

  • Alex Macfie 7th Dec '12 - 1:59pm

    Paul R:

    Perhaps there is a need to consider “institutional defamation” to give institutions the opportunity to seek legal redress when the press constantly misrepresents what they are doing?

    That’s a very bad idea, as it would chill investigations into genuine institutional malpractice if the institutions under investigation could threaten legal action against the investigators.

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