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Expert Comment: The Leveson Enquiry

Leveson_Inquiry_200_x_84 Wednesday 25 April 2012

Paddy Hoey, Journalism and Communication Lecturer at Liverpool Hope University

The Leveson Inquiry goes to the heart of many of the faults of the British Press, but it illustrates three most clearly. Firstly, it illustrates the all too cosy relationship between the political classes and powerful newspaper empires. Secondly, it makes a mockery of the most treasured of lies clung to by Britain’s newspapers, that we have a free press.  Finally, it illustrates, by default, the shockingly tawdry nature of the news values of our tabloids.

Newspapers, and in particular those from the News International stable, have based their defence on the fact that any potential statutory regulation would affect their ability to gather news and, particularly, news that is critical of the Government and social elites. The cry is that it would compromise the historical free press which has voluntarily regulated itself since the establishment of the Press Council in 1953 and latterly through the Press Complaints Commission.

Of course, the notion of the Free Press is arrant nonsense, as an aspiration, practically and historically. Key media theorists Kevin Williams and James Curran and Jean Seaton have pointed historically to the systems of overt and indirect government control – censorship and subsidy – that helped keep the press in check since the establishment of the commercial news printing in the 17th Century. Since the mid-19th Century and Carlyle’s rejoinder about the press being a Fourth Estate, an ideologically mobilised press has made much of its power by wielding its public influence on politicians. That insulated it from reform despite decades of abuse of public trust.

Kelvin Mackenzie, the former editor of the Sun, admitted at Leveson what we already knew, four of the last five Prime Ministers seriously courted the influence of the Murdoch press. One wonders whether any politician would have been willing to have put their heads above the parapet and call for regulation in that environment.

Of course, none of us interested in the industry really wants statutory regulation of the press in the same way as broadcast media. Even that most ardent tabloid critic, Private Eye editor and TV star Ian Hislop, told Leveson there is no need for further press regulation, just a better enforcement of the current procedures. The system of self-regulation by the PCC is toothless and needs greater powers to punish those breaking the professional codes. Having said all of that, many of those figures appearing at Leveson, including the Daily Express and Daily Star owner Richard Desmond, professed to not putting much stall in an ethical approach to journalism in the first place.

Such high minded values like ethics are often in conflict with the pursuit of wrong doing in all walks of life, sometimes rules have to be stretched to catch perpetrators in the act. But if that is what is at risk with Leveson, then I wonder what threat to the public actors Jude Law and Sienna Miller and Law’s former wife Sadie Frost, posed to national security. They have accepted more than £300k collectively from News International, 34 others also accepted compensation adding up to £10m, last week.

They pose no threat to society but they are celebrities and sell newspapers and cheap weekly magazines in an era of declining sales. The pursuit of them though is easier to rationalise than the hacking of the phones and emails of people who merely find themselves thrown into the public eye for the most tragic of reasons. The hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone, the hacking of families of murdered soldiers and those who died at September 11, 2001, occurred because regular abuses further up the celebrity food chain were allowed to happen by both the industry and the police. Leveson also illustrates just how far our standards have fallen as readers.

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