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

Finally, and most importantly, the regulator would run a new arbitration system as a cheaper and quicker alternative to the civil courts. That looks like very good news for reporters who currently work with laws on defamation, privacy and confidentiality that really do inhibit the freedom of the press, threatening damages and legal costs on such a scale as to encourage the suppression of the truth. The likes of the late broadcaster Jimmy Savile, now accused of serial child abuse, do well in those conditions. Leveson’s arbitration system would lighten the load. In addition, it offers an incentive for news organizations to volunteer to join a new regulator: Their membership, Leveson suggests, would exempt them from the worst of the costs and damages they might face in the event that they do end up being sued in the civil courts. Leveson needs a new law to ensure that the courts recognize the new regulator and deliver those benefits to its members. There is a nightmare here, but it is for the old guard of Fleet Street. To lose control of the regulator is to lose their license to do exactly as they please.

LICENSE

While the political attention may focus on Leveson’s plans for the future, the real power of his report is in the detailed, damning evidence of just what that license has allowed.

“Parts of the press have acted as if its own code simply did not exist ... there has been a recklessness in prioritizing sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause ... a willingness to deploy covert surveillance against or in spite of the public interest ... significant and reckless disregard for accuracy ... some newspapers resorting to high volume, extremely personal attacks on those who challenge them,” it said.

The report takes on the Daily Mail and its editor, Paul Dacre, for accusing Hugh Grant of “mendacious smears” in giving his evidence to the inquiry, finding that the paper “went too far” and that Dacre “acted precipitately” and that his explanation for his actions “does not justify the aggressive line which was adopted.” It tackles the Sun over its decision to expose that former British prime minister Gordon Brown’s infant son had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, finds that “there was no public interest in the story sufficient to justify publication without the consent of Mr and Mrs Brown,” recognizes the possibility that the information may have been obtained “by unlawful or unethical means” and challenges claims by the then-editor Rebekah Brooks that the Browns were “absolutely committed to making this public.” It details the behavior of the Mail, Sun and Telegraph who, while Leveson was sitting, opted to publish material about the death in a coach crash in Switzerland of the 12-year-old schoolboy Sebastian Bowles, which “undeniably raises issues under the editors’ code.”

This does not mean that the report presents no problems for journalism generally.

In the small print, it seems to suggest that police officers should no longer be able to give non-attributable briefings to reporters. If that rule had been in place over the past few years, it is fair to say that the Guardian might not have been able to expose the hacking scandal. There is a section which implies that reporters should be able to conceal the identities of confidential sources only if they have some kind of proof of the undertaking, such as a written agreement with the source — hardly possible if your source is a professional criminal describing alleged police corruption, or a child prostitute talking about her pimp.

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