Wed, Dec 05, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Trying to rein in a powerful beast uncovers the real nightmare

Far from being a catastrophe for British journalism, the Leveson report merely exposed the nature of its rules: of employing falsehoods, distortion and bullying

By Nick Davies  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Let us look first at the nightmares that have not become real.

The UK government is not being invited to take over the press. All those full-page advertisements linking Lord Justice Leveson to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, all that high-octane coverage in the Sun and the Mail about his report “imposing a government leash on papers” and threatening “state regulation of Britain’s free press” has proved to be no more than froth on the lips of propagandists, simply another round of the same old distortion that did so much to create this inquiry in the first place.

Nor does the Leveson report accept that Fleet Street — the old home of the national press is still used as its nickname — should be rewarded for its repeated abuse of power with the grant of even more power, not only to run its own regulator, but to investigate journalists and to impose fines on those it might find wanting. This was the cutting edge of the plan hatched by the conservative end of Fleet Street, still blandly, blindly confident that the rest of us would accept placemen for the Express proprietor Richard Desmond (“Ethical? I don’t quite know what the word means”) policing the ethics of the press; or Paul Dacre (who originally told the Press Complaints Commission that the Guardian’s coverage of the phone-hacking scandal was “highly exaggerated and imaginative”) having some role in fining the Guardian; or executives from Rupert Murdoch’s News International, which misled the press, public and parliament, being granted any kind of role in investigating the truth of other newspapers’ stories. Leveson rejected this plan with a neat soundbite: “It’s still the industry marking its own homework.”

SELF-REGULATION

Nor is this any kind of catastrophe for British journalism. From a reporter’s point of view, there is no obvious problem with the core of Leveson’s report, his system of “independent self-regulation.” This would have three functions. First, it would handle complaints, but it would do so through an organization that was neither appointed by nor answerable to Fleet Street. The dark end of the industry may complain that this is all a terrible threat to the free press, echoing the rapist who claims the police are a threat to free love. Why should we fear an independent referee? Why should we not be ashamed of the old Press Complaints Commission which, as the report puts it, “has failed ... is not actually a regulator at all ... lacks independence ... has proved itself to be aligned with the interests of the press”? It is hard to think of any other decent answer to the evidence of Kate and Gerry McCann, falsely accused of murdering their own child; or of Christopher Jefferies, viciously smeared as a killer; or of any of the other witnesses in the opening module of Leveson’s inquiry.

Second, the new regulator would investigate systemic offending. That looks weaker. This is not about investigating crime. There is not (nor should there be) any suggestion that the regulator would have any power to compel the disclosure of documents or to search a reporter’s desk. This is about investigating systemic breaches of the code of conduct — taking pictures in breach of their subject’s privacy, for example, or interviewing children without the consent of their parents. Without police powers, the regulator would rely on journalists to cooperate. History suggests they will be reluctant to do so for fear of losing their career. Numerous former News of the World journalists helped the Guardian to uncover the hacking scandal, but only two of them felt able to speak on the record. Weak, but not a threat.

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