Leveson, interpreted: The significance of the press’ reaction when the UK’s media inquiry reports by Judith Townend

After 26 weeks of hearings, the UK’s Leveson Inquiry, held under the Inquiries Act 2005, has stopped to consider its mass of oral and written evidence gathered during Part 1 (474 people, 135 organisations and 3.2 million words, according to the BBC). “Save for a number of what might be described as ‘loose ends’ or ‘updates’ the gathering of formal evidence by the examination of witnesses is now at an end,” Lord Justice Leveson concluded. He now has to write the report for this first part, examining “the culture, practices, and ethics of the press” over four modules of evidence, which included 29 submissions on the future regime of the press.

End of Part 1, but will there be Part 2?

There was supposed to be a Part 2, which would deal more directly with the impetus for the Inquiry – allegations of widespread phone hacking by News of the World. The remit of Part 2 was to examine “the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International, other newspaper organisations and, as appropriate, other organisations within the media, and by those responsible for holding personal data.” But it’s unclear when or whether it will happen. To date, the Inquiry has avoided a direct investigation into phone hacking in order not to disrupt the simultaneous police inquiry.

The counsel acting for the “victims” of the press, David Sherborne, has made the case for Part 2’s necessity, arguing that criminal proceedings and the civil litigation over voicemail interception will not provide a “full picture of what took place.” Without giving any time frame, Lord Justice Leveson clarified that he is “not in any sense seeking to advance an argument that part 2 should not happen.” That is despite interpretations to the contrary, which Sherborne suggested were made “by those who have an interest in doing so.”

UK press: an ‘interest’ in its interpretation of Leveson

Sherborne anticipates, he said, “that a very significant part of the media machine, which will grind into action once part 1 of the Inquiry ends, will be to say that part 2 is unnecessary” … “That is no doubt what will be said by the self-interested few.” It is this alleged self-interest which is so interesting – and important to monitor.

The industry under investigation also wields the UK’s most powerful communication tools. UK national newspaper circulation may be in decline, but the papers’ websites are read by millions (according to Comscore, the Mail Online is the world’s most popular newspaper website) and the main broadcasters frequently take lead from the newspapers’ agenda in their own coverage. Furthermore, media coverage has serious policy implications. Fewer people may buy the papers year-on-year but the politicians are still reading them, and more importantly, reacting.

Throughout the Inquiry, the industry under investigation has not been reticent in reporting proceedings. Unlike the ‘media omerta’ in operation during the phone hacking scandal before July 2011, there have been pages of coverage about the Inquiry. However, it is how newspapers are reporting the Inquiry that warrants further and continued attention. As a colleague and I pointed out in an article in the latest British Journalism Review, newspapers’ selective reporting of the scandal has provided plenty of material for the satirical magazine Private Eye’s regular “What you didn’t read” Leveson round-ups; and, as just one example of omission, the tabloids ignored the unauthorised publication of selected files from Operation Motorman on the Guido Fawkes blog, which revealed requests for information from News International journalists to a private investigator (see also: Bennett and Townend 2012).

It is, therefore, crucial to watch how the media reports Leveson’s recommendations. Media distortions (or silences) can’t be ignored because they have real policy implications. It was experiencing first-hand “how policy can be distorted by inaccurate claims” that led Will Moy to set up the London-based non-profit fact-checking organisation FullFact, for example. The public is in the fortunate position that all the Leveson Inquiry transcripts and written evidence have been made available online. Videos of previous sessions can be re-watched. The media’s self-portrayal of its behaviour and its representation of Leveson’s findings can be carefully scrutinised.

There should be an extensive public debate about Leveson’s findings and members of the press should be free to voice their opinions. But not at the expense of facts and wider representation of the public voice. In her fifth Reith lecture in 2002, Baroness Onora O’Neill made a careful distinction between the freedom of media conglomerates and freedom of expression for individuals:

Like [John Stuart] Mill we may support freedom of discussion, and think that it is fundamental to democracy, and so support the freedom of the press to foster what in the US is charmingly called wide-open, robust debate. But for that very reason we cannot support freedom for media conglomerates to orchestrate public ‘discussion’ in which some or many voices are unrepresented or caricatured, in which misinformation may be peddled uncorrected and in which reputations may be selectively shredded or magnified.

The press’ reportage and commentary on the Inquiry’s outcome should not be at the cost of a wider public right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to ‘receive’ as well as ‘impart’ information.

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