On Leveson, language and topsy-turviness

The Leveson Report is Published

Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust has written a long article for the New Statesman on the “topsy-turvy” world of the debate on press regulation and restrictions.

Moore undoubtedly makes some good points about the absurdity of some newspapers protesting potential political interference in the press while not raising a even the mildest objection to the government and secret services actual threats to the Guardian over its coverage of GCHQ surveillance techniques (similar points were made with elan by the Spectator’s Nick Cohen a few weeks ago).

The MST director berates newspapers for having “got the debate the wrong way round” both “in principle and in practice”.

But Moore and his comrades who support the Royal Charter, in the Media Standards Trust, Hacked Off, and individuals, themselves must take some blame for the topsy-turviness of the language around regulation.

Take the idea of “exemplary damages”, which, it is proposed, publications that do not sign up to a recognised regulator will be subjected to.

The pro-Royal Charter argument has been that the existence of exemplary damages, and the avoidance of them are “incentives” to join the regulator. They are not. They are a punishment for not joining the regulator. An incentive would suggest putting publications at an advantage; but under the current proposals, all that joining a regulator does is to put publications on a level footing with individuals or organisations who would not be considered subject to the regulatory scheme. An “incentive” to avoid default punishment is akin to a threat from a protection racket.

Further on in his article, Moore calls for a British version of the US’s First Amendment. It’s a  nice idea.

But Moore says that Lord Justice Leveson proposed a British First Amendment. This is not the case.

What Leveson recommended was this:

In passing legislation to identify the legitimate requirements to be met by an independent regulator organised by the press, and to provide for a process of recognition and review of whether those requirements are and continue to be met, the law should also place an explicit duty on the Government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press.”

At first glance, that’s all very lovely. But it is meaningless at best, dangerous at worst, and certainly not a First Amendment style law.

Meaningless because all sorts of countries have constitutional guarantees of a free press. China, for example, states in article 35 of its constitution that “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Fine words.

Dangerous as it could imply that the government of the day ultimately holds press freedom in its hands. This, it may be argued, is the case anyway, but to explicitly say it is not ideal. As noted in a recent Huffington Post article by Hacked Off’s Brian Cathcart, the British government has made many attempts in the past to stifle press freedom. I don’t really see why we should explicitly say the concept belongs to them.

The first amendment states simply:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

To claim that Leveson’s proposal, specifically to create a law about freedom of the press, is the same thing, is odd. When coupled with the proposal of punitive measures for those publishers who do not wish to play the government’s game, the claim is absurd.

This article was originally posted on 26 Nov 2013 at indexoncensorhip.org

Index debates life after Leveson at the Frontline Club

It was a packed house last night for our event at the Frontline Club debating life after the Leveson Inquiry, which is set to make recommendations for regulation of the British press this autumn.

Panellists Brian Cathcart (Kingston University and Hacked Off), David Aaronovitch (Times), Helen Lewis (New Statesman) and Angela Phillips (Goldsmiths and the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform) — chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby — discussed what they both believed and hoped Leveson would hold for the future.

Phillips argued that the level of collusion between the press, politicians and police was the “shocking” factor, adding that Leveson must examine media ownership to prevent future abuses. The issue — which has been raised of late as hearings come to a close — is outside the judge’s broad terms of reference, with Aaronovitch questioning how diversity would be ensured were caps to be brought in.

On public interest, Cathcart repeated his call for a strong public interest defence to protect responsible journalism, with Phillips matching it with a statutory right of reply. As for ethics, Aaronovitch toyed with the idea of a “bulked-up” self-regulatory system with ethical underpinning, suggesting a modified version of the BBC’s guidelines and penalties model.

Lewis, meanwhile, implored Leveson address the reality that the British press is now competing in a global market of news websites and papers alike. “What the internet has done is terrifying because you can see how well each piece of content has done,” Lewis said, adding that we needed to “get over the idea that blogs and Twitter are the Wild West”.

This has not been the first time Leveson has been nudged to examine the pressures brought on by the web, with MailOnline editor Martin Clarke telling him in May that the Inquiry was obsessing with the “last war” of print in trying to solve the press puzzle. It was left to Aaronovitch last night to muse: “we are locking the stable door after horse has died.”

Indeed, as several audience members noted, there was perhaps more confusion after than before the debate. Such is the array of issues Leveson himself has to tackle this summer as he sits down to pen his report.

Can’t say I envy him the task.

The debate was streamed live, and you can watch it in full below:

PAST EVENT: 19 July: What will Lord Justice Leveson conclude about the future of the British press?

Date: Thursday 19 July
Time: 7-8.30pm
Venue: Frontline club, 13 Norfolk Place, London W2 1QJ
Tickets: Book here

It has been a year since the Prime Minister announced an inquiry examining the culture, practices and ethics of the media in light of the phone-hacking scandal. Since then we have heard from journalists, editors, proprietors, politicians and victims of phone-hacking. As hearings come to a close and Lord Justice Leveson begins to compile his report, join Frontline and Index on Censorship for a panel discussion, followed by Q&A on what the Inquiry has learned and what it should achieve.

Will new regulation damage the free press? How should public interest be defined? Can we ensure protection for sources and whistleblowers? How should relationships between journalists, proprietors, politicians and police be conducted in the future?

Panel includes:

David Aaronovitch, writer, broadcaster, commentator and regular columnist for The Times. He is author of Voodoo Histories: The role of Conspiracy Theory in Modern History and Paddling to Jerusalem: An Aquatic Tour of Our Small Country. Twitter: @DAaronovitch

Brian Cathcart, professor of journalism at Kingston University London and founder of the Hacked Off campaign. He served as specialist adviser to the commons media select committee in 2008-10. He was a journalist at Reuters, the Independent and the New Statesman, and has written books about the murders of Stephen Lawrence and Jill Dando, as well as on the history of nuclear science. Twitter: @BrianCathcart

Helen Lewis, deputy editor at the New Statesman. As well as commissioning and editing, she writes for the NS magazine and blogs for its website, with favoured topics including comedy, feminism, politics and computer games. She has also written forEdge magazine, the StylistSquare Meal and the Guardian; she reviews the papers on Sky News and has appeared on the Today programme, Woman’s Hour and The Daily Politics. Twitter:@helenlewis

Angela Phillips, senior lecturer in journalism at Goldsmiths College, author of Good Writing for Journalists and co-author of Changing Journalism. She has been a journalist for over 30 years, starting in the alternative press of the 1970s and moving on to work for national newspapers, magazines, television and radio (the BBC and independents). She is also the chair of the Ethics Committee of the Coordinating Committee for Media Reform and gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry on Friday 13 July, 2012. Twitter: @AngelaELL

You can read our policy note on the key challenges for the Leveson Inquiry below:
Freedom of the Press, Governance and Press Standards: Key Challenges for the Leveson Inquiry

Free speech? Not when a newspaper sets a private eye on a journalist

Cross-posted at Hacked Off

Peter Hill was editor of the Daily Express for seven years, from the end of 2003 to early 2011. Among his claims to fame is that he edited the newspaper throughout the Madeleine McCann affair in 2007-8, overseeing coverage that led to a £550,000 libel pay-out by the group and to grovelling front-page apologies.

Before he became its editor the Express had made its mark in the Motorman files, with seven of its journalists listed by the Information Commissioner as having employed the private investigator Steve Whittamore 36 times to carry out searches or inquiries.

But when Hill appeared before the Leveson inquiry in January, he did so after writing in a sworn statement: “I am not aware of ever having used a private investigator at the Daily Express.” Giving evidence under oath, he also declared: “I didn’t follow any of those practices. The regime completely changed when I became the editor.”

Another answer was less categorical, however. Hill was asked: “Is it your evidence that a number of people left, and therefore, because they left, you could be sure that private investigators were no longer being used? Or is it your evidence that you have no idea at all as to whether private investigators were ever used?” He replied: “I have no idea.”

Consider now the evidence to the inquiry of Nicole Patterson, the Express group’s legal chief. She said that after 2005 (and therefore when Hill was in charge at the Express) the papers had made use of no fewer than five companies in the field of data acquisition, of which one was Whittamore’s firm, JJ Services. In 2005 alone, she revealed, the papers spent £110,700 with these five firms, and though she said she saw no evidence of illegality it is not clear how closely she looked.

Besides answering questions at the inquiry, Patterson submitted documents giving details of the use of private investigators and search agencies by the Express papers. Those documents have not been made public, though some were displayed on screens at the hearings and seen by reporters.

The veteran investigative reporter Mark Hosenball has been able to piece together some details of these transactions in an article for Reuters. Notable among these is the case of ‘P Wilby’.

Peter Wilby is a former editor of the Independent on Sunday and the New Statesman and is now an award-winning comment writer. On 17 September 2007, in an article for the Guardian about the McCann case, he referred to the Daily Express as “a hopeless newspaper that couldn’t tell you the time of day”.

A cheap shot, you might say, but no more. Yet it appears to have had consequences, for according to Hosenball the Patterson documents “show that in September 2007 the Express group paid £963.50 to JJ Services [Whittamore] for information on ‘P Wilby’. This is an apparent reference to Peter Wilby. . .”

“According to the records,” Hosenball continued, “the payment was made shortly after Wilby published an article in the Guardian castigating British newspapers, including the Daily Express, for excesses in their coverage of the saga of Madeleine McCann. . .”

Wilby himself has written about this and is not inclined to make a fuss, but on the basis of Patterson’s public evidence we can say that £963,50 must have been a relatively large payment. Most payments to Whittamore and others in this period were for less than £100, she said. In other evidence it emerged that in 2007 Whittamore charged a daily rate of £240, so £960 would have neatly bought four whole days of investigating time, with the £3.50 added on for stationery perhaps.

If ‘P Wilby’ is indeed Peter Wilby (and it would be a remarkable coincidence if two people called P Wilby crossed the path of the Express in those same few days in 2007), then what we have here is a national newspaper commissioning a private investigator (and convicted criminal) to do four days work, or the equivalent in value, on a distinguished journalist.

Stop and think about that. The Express trades on criticism, frequently dishing out abuse worse than Wilby’s and often in a meaner spirit. The paper would say it has a right to do so. But what happens to someone who criticises the Express? It seems the critic gets investigated, and what could be the objective of such an investigation if not to find some means of demeaning or silencing him?

The paper had the right to criticise, in short, but no one had the right to criticise the paper.

Is there any evidence that the Express took such grave exception to Wilby’s jibe? It so happens that there is. On 19 September 2007, two days after the article appeared, the Guardian’s Media Monkey gossip column reported the following:

‘The Guardian has been banned from the offices of the Daily Express after editor Peter Hill blew his top over a column by Peter Wilby in Monday’s MediaGuardian section. . . Mr Hill has responded by banning the morning delivery of 18 copies of the Guardian to the Express offices on the banks of the Thames near Tower Bridge.” Monkey’s man on the inside explained: “He was deeply offended by a thoughtless remark by Peter Wilby, especially as the latter had met him only a couple of weeks previously and had been perfectly cordial. . .”

So this is what we know: on 17 September 2007 Wilby had a go at the Express in print; on 19 September Hill was reported to be so “deeply offended” that he banned the Guardian from the Express offices; ‘shortly after’ the Wilby jibe, someone at the Express commissioned Whittamore to carry out almost £1,000 worth of work on Wilby.

Two questions leap to mind. First, what was Whittamore commissioned to do? No article appeared in the paper subsequently to give any clue. Could he or an employee of his have spent four days engaged in entirely innocent inquiries about Wilby? By Patterson’s account the Express only employed investigators to do jobs journalists would not normally do, so we can presumably rule out a trawl of Wilby’s past journalism or research for a profile article that was never published.

We can also rule out a four-day search for Wilby’s contact details, since those can be found in the published telephone directory. It is an extraordinary thought (though we know it happened at News International), but is it possible that, for £240 a day, Wilby was placed under surveillance?

The other question is, who at the Express did the commissioning? It can’t have been Peter Hill since he is the man who wrote in a sworn statement: “I am not aware of ever having used a private investigator at the Daily Express.” Hill also had “no idea” whether his subordinates used them, so presumably it was one of them – just as it must have been subordinates who continued to commission work from Whittamore, a convicted criminal, right up to 30 July 2010.

Will we ever know the answers to these two questions? Probably not in this part of the Leveson inquiry, where the caravan has moved on. Perhaps it’s a job for a private investigator.

Read more about Steve Whittamore and the Motorman files here.

Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and is a member of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart