The government positioned the final nail to hammer into the coffin of the Leveson inquiry with the obscure pronouncement in the Queen’s Speech read out by Prince Charles on 10 May that they were going to repeal section 40 of the 2013 Crime and Courts Act.
This contentious clause was a component in the shaky structure put up by Lord Justice Leveson after his inquiry in 2011–12 supposedly to install a regulation regime that would secure responsible, fair and decent national media for the UK.
Some hopes of that! It was entirely predictable that the national press would run a wild and brutal campaign against it, to which a Conservative government would ignominiously submit.
Regulation of the press
The precise function of section 40 was to penalise publishers that failed to affiliate to a regulator that complied with the terms of the Leveson report. It would deprive them of financial advantages granted to those that had so affiliated in defending civil actions for defamation. The objective was to incentivise them to sign up by making it more costly to defend their lies and errors in court
To gain these bonuses a Leveson-compliant regulator would have to meet a catalogue of detailed standards to guarantee its independence and fairness, which the owners of the corporate press could never tolerate.
The government duly caved in to their campaign, even though in 2013 it had put the measure through Parliament with all-party support. Two years before that, when the phone-hacking scandal erupted over news that the News of the World had hacked the phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, it was Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron who had set up the inquiry, saying, “This is a truly dreadful situation”.
The inquiry went on to unearth devastating revelations of the dirty tricks and bullying of the national press, and the depth of the corrupt relationships between the press, the government and the Metropolitan Police. It then drew up a programme for reform.
Is regulation a threat to press freedom?
Unsurprisingly this was too much for the media corporations, which denounced the inquiry and all its works as a ‘threat to press freedom’ – that is, a threat to their profits and their freedom to act at will.
As a gesture of change, they did close their tame self-regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, which was anyway totally discredited after a decade of shameful complicity in the phone-hacking cover-up. Instead, they launched the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) – which was the same again apart from the title. The clue, as they say, is in the name: when an organisation is pointedly renamed ‘independent’, it invariably means it isn’t.
In the ensuing battle over the Leveson recommendations, Section 40 assumed a totemic significance. The publishers claimed they were being penalised for making a legitimate choice, and they had a point.
Nearly all journalists working for the nationals, at a time when their future seemed precarious, supported their bosses’ furious objections. The National Union of Journalists, which had supported the Leveson process and presented compelling evidence to the inquiry, found itself facing a rebellion and turned against section 40.
It was a blunder on Leveson’s part, but his project was doomed anyway. Leveson’s bigger mistake was to accept the publishers’ claim that any statutory element to regulation must mean state censorship.
Repeal of Leveson
The straightforward way to deal with complaints against any media would be to have a tribunal; not a government body but a court. No state control, no censorship, no state appointments, no political interference – just retrospective judgement in the public interest.
The publishers accept the civil courts where they fight their defamation cases. What’s the difference? Yet even the media reform movement, comprising people who really do believe in press freedom, has bought the owners’ argument. Such scruples do not however extend to regulating the online media; no-one in the debates on online harm agonises about state involvement. Again, what’s the difference?
Leveson’s was a naïve and misguided attempt to repair a glaring fault in our social/political system. It was launched with an immense breadth of support and produced compelling evidence, but not enough of either to threaten our untouchable media corporations.
The repeal will be in a Media Bill to be published later this year.
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