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Leaving Leveson behind?

Written by Duncan Hames on Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Department of Culture Media and Sport has been conducting a public consultation, which closes today, on two very different policy changes relating to Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. The first is whether to commence the powers in Section 40 of the Crime & Courts Act 2013 which establish legal costs liabilities as ‘incentives’ for establishing officially recognised self-regulated industry standards bodies in the media. The second is on whether to proceed with part two of the Leveson Inquiry. Major media outlets, especially the press, are mounting an overwhelming media campaign to defend the press from what they see as unreasonable consequences for eschewing official recognition of their chosen approach to accountability for standards in the media. Meanwhile, the Government is positing the idea that police investigations into cases of corruption in the police’s dealings with the media have been sufficient – as if that is an adequate substitute for independent inquiry. Where does all this leave the public interest? And what conclusion to these consultations would most help the fight against corruption?

The fight against corruption needs fearless journalists

Our work reminds us almost daily that organisations like Transparency International and investigative journalists are partners in the fight against corruption. Where would public understanding of corporate secrecy, kleptocracy, money laundering and the fraudulent ways of some politicians be without investigative reporting?

In recent years some of the biggest corruption scandals have been exposed through the power of investigative journalism. Most notable was the Panama Papers last April, in one of the widest investigations involving journalists from multiple outlets that the world has ever seen. Closer to home Buzzfeed have been responsible for two serious and lengthy corruption investigations, first involving Lycamobile and money-laundering and secondly an investigation that found three former Gaddafi henchmen living in the UK off suspected stolen assets. It was an investigation by The Sun which led to the first successful conviction under the Bribery Act, and the Daily Mail has also pursued allegations of corruption in our criminal justice system. The Telegraph, having exposed MPs living at our expense in 2009, turned to the world of sport resulting in the England football manager being forced out and making allegations of bribery against several other football managers.

This is, however, only part of the story. The commercial pressures presented by free online publishing, and the move to advertising-funded journalism, have led newsrooms to produce more immediate reporting, with far less emphasis on longer investigations that often require considerable resources over many months. Journalists have been working within investigative groups such as the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and joining organisations like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Investigative journalism remains one of the key tools in the fight against corruption as we enter 2017.  Collaborative journalism is to be encouraged and can often draw on multiple expertise, but it’s vital that news outlets, both broadcast and print, continue to invest in investigative journalism that can very often captivate audiences in a unique understanding of society’s predicament.

Now, just as the proliferation of ready access to online media sources was beginning to suppress concerns over the levels of concentration of media ownership, Rupert Murdoch is resurrecting his bid for control of Sky and we learn that the owners of the Daily Mirror are in talks to acquire the Daily Express and the Daily Star.

Accountability for press standards

An essential ally in the fight against corruption, journalists and management in media groups – like any organisation – are not immune to becoming corrupted. The News of the World was by no means the only publication whose staff broke the law. There have also been cases of press abuse and collusion between police and the media which have occurred since the conclusion of Leveson Part One or subsequent reviews that took place. The case of journalist Mazher Mahmood demonstrates that the issue of press ethics is still live, as does the controversy surrounding the police raid on the home of entertainer, Sir Cliff Richard. Also notable was Peter Oborne’s departure from the Telegraph in protest at its unwillingness to run reports criticising a major advertiser.

Nonetheless the reputation of British journalism for unyielding independent investigation has been set out proudly in the debate around the Government’s consultation on commencing the measures in Section 40 of the Crime & Courts Act. If you have followed this debate in the media, it will appear very one-sided – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the media is itself almost exclusively of the view that self-regulation is the best approach. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the question, this reflects how difficult it must be for the media to be objective about something that affects them so directly. There is a risk that in not representing the full debate, the media undermine their own case.

The Leveson Inquiry and parallel police criminal investigations revealed sobering details of the cosy relationship between politicians and the media, the bribing of police officers, and the lack of will to hold the media accountable even when laws had clearly been broken. Transparency International UK’s research at the time highlighted concerns over the concentration of media ownership and corruption in politics and the police. It is very hard to be confident that the successor to the discredited Press Complaints Commission and the toothless self-regulation it represented has brought the much-needed change required, nor embodies the independence needed to ensure justice for victims.

TI is not advocating any specific solution for how to advance press standards and secure redress for people who suffer when the media fails to live up to them.  But we believe there needs to be a fair, independent and accessible means of doing so. We also know the press and investigative journalists, play a critical part in the fight against corruption.  And it is plain to see that the current situation has reached an unsustainable impasse: some excellent newspapers are unregistered and vulnerable to the UK’s vicious libel laws; the replacement to the Press Complaints Commission looks uncomfortably like its discredited predecessor; Parliament’s settled view is being resisted; the media’s case is compromised by its ownership structures and poor track record; and the alternative body has been funded by a small number of special interests and is therefore suspected of not having an objective and independent approach.  The situation is both an impasse and a mess, and the solution may not lie in any of the ideas that are on the table.  Whatever follows should meet four key tests:

  • it needs to be free from political interference
  • it must allow victims of unjustifiable abuse, intrusion or allegation to seek recourse to an extent that is proportionate to the damage they have suffered
  • it must not be a mechanism that is open to abuse by those seeking to silence the press for their own ends
  • it must have genuine and effective powers of enforcement.

In examining what is still to be done to restore public confidence in our news media, the Government should neither forget the passion for defending press freedom, nor the need for significant and genuine change revealed by part one of the Leveson Inquiry.

Independent inquiry into police corruption

The second half of this same Government consultation, has nothing to do with Section 40 or exposure to legal costs for media, but is largely dismissed as an untimely irrelevance by comment on that other debate. It is the suggestion from the Culture Secretary that she might abandon the promises made by previous ministers and the position set out by Lord Justice Leveson himself: that his inquiry would get around to inquiring into the conduct of the police in their relations with the media, and into the failure to investigate matters such as phone-hacking when first presented with evidence.

When investigative journalists break shocking revelations – be they hypocrisies, corruption or cover-ups, the public response to the scandal demands action. I remember from my own time in Parliament how politicians are immediately under intense pressure to act or face the consequences personally. An inquiry, or even self-referral for investigation, is their first safe harbour, to at least buy some time and more importantly to defer judgement until the intensity of the public spotlight has moved on.

In the case of phone-hacking and related issues that fell within the scope of the Lord Justice Leveson’s Inquiry, the public spotlight remained stubbornly on the media’s practices and their relations with politicians, and live police investigations followed by criminal proceedings necessitated deferring public interrogation of some matters for a number of years. Only now amidst debates about fake news and Government’s focus on Brexit does it seem a distant memory.

The inquiry into the case of Daniel Morgan is also overdue, and the panel set up to deal with the Morgan case does not have statutory powers. If there are outstanding issues that require judicial powers, part two of the Leveson Inquiry would be able to address those.

The argument presented by the Government is that three police investigations, at some expense, haven’t uncovered a great deal more that was already the backdrop for the first part of the Leveson Inquiry. This rather misunderstands the nature and purpose of those investigations. We ask the police to follow the evidence of criminal law-breaking wherever it leads, and to present to prosecutors the case for seeking convictions in the courts. There have certainly been convictions, and others overturned on appeal. We can’t however expect these investigations to have comprehensively and independently inquired into the conflict interests and failings of the police in their response to this scandal in the first place.

To abandon this part of the Leveson Inquiry now would be an abdication of responsibility by the Culture Secretary, and a betrayal of the victims of phone-hacking to whom it was promised.

If anything, the scope may be too narrow: we have in recent years seen scandal after scandal around police corruption (the Hillsborough cover up, the Stephen Lawrence case, multiple links between police officers and organised crime, and much more) and yet there has been no systematic analysis of police corruption to determine whether this is a series of unfortunate isolated incidents or something more systemic.  That is a critical question, as it will govern what kind of response is appropriate.  The question the government must answer is this: if they intend to shelve part two of the Leveson Inquiry, what is their plan for a comprehensive, independent inquiry into police corruption?

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Read 126 times Last modified on Tuesday, 10 January 2017 17:31

Duncan Hames

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