Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Limits of Leveson

I bet there are few people who have read the complete Leveson report into the 'culture, practice and ethics of the press.' I can't claim to be one of them, but last night I did wade thought the 48 page 'executive summary' to try and find out exactly what Leveson concluded after his marathon investigation.

Despite the fact that even this 'summary' is excessively wordy (i hate to think what the full report is like), and is not engagingly written, I am glad I did. If I had relied on press reports or the pronouncements of many politicians, I would have had a very distorted view of what it was all about.

Over the last few days, journalists and politicians have lined up to criticise the idea of ending 'freedom of the press'. Apparently, that is what Leveson proposes. The culture secretary went as far as to suggest that it could lead to the end of free speech!

Others have alleged that Leveson's recommendations are tantamount to a Stalinist approach and conjure up the image of State censorship and control of the media.

This is absolute total nonsense. Leveson doesn't suggest anything of the sort.

Essentially what Leveson suggests is the setting up of an industry body to define ethical standards and to provide an arbitration service to enable individuals to seek redress if they can't afford expensive court cases. Leveson concludes that this would require some simple legislation to give this body the powers to impose fines and impose actions, such as prominent printed apologies in publications.

Perhaps surprisingly, as Madeleine McCann's father Gerry has complained, Leveson has proposed that this body would be voluntary. Rather than being compelled to join, individual newspapers and news publications would be able to choose if they wish to join and therefore be bound by the standards of the body. Leveson suggests that they would be incentivised to join by lower legal costs in the instances of any legal action.

Leveson has also suggested that this body would be setup by the industry itself - not by government.

In my view, rather than being the thin of a wedge that will lead to state control of the media, the Leveson report is a disappointingly wishy-washy response to some extremely serious problems.

In fact, my view is that Leveson has almost entirely missed the point:

In the early part of the summary, Leveson quotes Thomas Jefferson (the principal author of the American Declaration of Independance) as saying "where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe." Leveson then states that this principle 'operates as one of the cornerstones of our democracy'...

Well. Ok. The press is 'free' in that there is no legal restriction on who can print their thoughts, ideas and representations for distribution to others. But there is a huge commercial limitation on who can reach a large audience. 'The Press' is not free. it is owned by large media companies, who can and have abused their power, and who regularly distort and misrepresent information.

Jefferson, I think in the late 1700's, was referring to 'The Press' in a far more literal sense to the way in which we use the phrase today. We use the phrase to describe one significant part of the media whereas Jefferson was referring to the physical printing press (The Press) and was essentially arguing against state control of the ability to print and distribute news and information. He argued logically for a 'free press'.

If one were able to travel back in time and explain to Jefferson that we now, 250 years later, have the ability to put man (or woman) on the moon, can travel to the other side of the world in less than 24 hours and communicate with almost anyone anywhere on the surface of the planet instantly with voice, text and visually and we were to ask him if he though his pronouncement would be as profound and relevant in our future as it was in his past, I imagine the answer would have been quite brief.

I imagine that unless he was the most flamboyant egotist, he would have drawn himself up, grasped a lapel in each hand, peered at me and said something like, 'Well, unexpectedly shabbily dressed, young man from the future, I very much doubt it..'

Yet Leveson believes that this is a 'cornerstone of our democracy'?

Leveson further illustrates a further lack of grasp when he wanders into the realm of social media. When talking about the declining power of newspapers (whilst missing the point that newspaper's declining paper based distribution has been replaced by online readers) he says 'Control over information which might have been possible in an earlier age can be defeated instantly on Twitter..'


So if a newspaper were to suggest that someone had killed their own missing child, as Madeleine McCann's parents have alleged, the implication is that they could rebut such an allegation with the miracle power of Twitter!

Leveson doesn't seem to have quite thought through this and realised that as the average Twitter user only has around 200 followers, Twitter may often only provide the same enhancement to communication as printing 200 leaflets and handing them out to friends and neighbours might have in the past.

I am sure Brian Leveson has an excellent understanding of the law and could help considerably with the drafting of the legislation that David Cameron claims is going to be really tricky but unfortunately his lack of comprehension of the mechanics of the media and the impact of technology largely disables his ability to grasp the main issues to be addressed.

Leveson seems to be predisposed to the idea that the inevitable wave of technology will turn the tide, that it will automatically democratise mass communication and therefore prevent some of the abuses of power that have been possible in the past.

I supposed I feel some sympathy for this naivety. It is not an unusual response. Its a fairly typical dazzled response from someone who is seduced by the promise of technology but who (unlike me) hasnt ever worked with or understood technology in the media or elsewhere, and who therefore assumes that the revolution is far more revolutionary and game-changing than in reality it is.

But it really would have made a lot more sense if Leveson had invested a lot more time in understanding the media and the relevant technology before embarking on his inquiry.

I suspect this lack of comprehension and blind optimism about the technological promise of the future has led Leveson to fail to really explore the issues regarding plurality in other words the desirability of news and information being available from many independent sources.

I would argue that this really is one of the cornerstones of a democracy.

In the same way that communication, or the means of communication, should not be controlled by the state, nor should it be largely controlled by a very small number of media companies who dont even have the harness of democratic legitimacy.

Nowhere in his summary does Leveson explore the impact, for example, of the fact that approximately 50% of UK national newspaper circulation is from just 2 newspapers (the Sun and the Mail) or that one Media owner (News International) owns not just the leading newspaper title but also one of the major broadsheets and a huge tv and media empire.

No-one argues that the BBC should be unregulated or should be anything other than impartial yet when other media empires acquire this extent of dominance, people scream that they should be allowed to be free from regulation and be allowed to guard their partiality.

In summary of the Leveson summary I find it to say the least..disappointing.

Millions of pounds, thousands of words and the tears of many witnesses have been spent on this task and Leveson has sadly failed to point a way forward. Instead he limply makes suggestions and fails to identify, much less attempt to resolve, the root cause of the problem.

Perhaps it was asking too much to expect an old semi-retired judge on the speaker circuit to come up with anything more than a simple formula for a working complaints procedure but I think many expected much, much more. Not least that band of witnesses who were, and I imagine still are, Hacked-Off.

To console myself I shall now go and watch the Bond Movie Tommorrow Never Dies a cunningly concealed allegory that explores the chaos and destruction that dominant media moguls with a political agendas can cause.

I was told some years ago that the scene in which the lights go out at the launch of the moguls international news channel was based quite literally on a similar occurance at the launch of Sky News.

Perhaps Brian should have watched it before he started his enquiry..

But my last words on this are to quote another movie - The Life of Brian.

No he is not the son of God. He is a very naughty boy.

Have a nice holiday Brian.


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