Following the News International phone hacking scandal, the Government convened the Leveson Inquiry to look into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press. Four media experts discuss the Inquiry's importance and what it means for the future of the media.
Michelle Stainestreet, General Secretary, National Union of Journalists
It was dogged investigative journalism that blew the lid on the phone hacking scandal and led to the Leveson Inquiry – the kind of resource-intensive reporting that has become an endangered species in far too many newsrooms.
In this unprecedented inquiry into the culture practices and ethics of the press, the consequences of a powerful media organisation who has been allowed to dominate and undermine our democracy has been laid bare. Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers believed that they were above the law. The police, far too cosy to the Murdoch empire, failed to investigate the hacking claims properly. Politicians were too craven to criticise him and his newspapers’ activities because they were frightened of being targeted. The inquiry has also exposed the level of access that Murdoch, his family and acolytes had to prime ministers and ministers.
It has lifted the lid on a world where the powerful political and media elite shared “country suppers”, chatty emails and hacked across the Oxfordshire countryside on former Metropolitan police horses. The evidence has highlighted a need for tighter rules of engagement and transparency when wealthy media moguls seek to use their influence with politicians for commercial gain. The inquiry started by looking at the victims of newspapers, hearing evidence from the parents of Milly Dowler and the McCanns, whose personal tragedies were trampled on by the press. It is now ending with an examination of how press regulation can be reformed.
The NUJ – a core participant at Leveson – wants a truly independent body, with press freedom and journalistic standards at its heart. There should be an ombudsman to hear complaints from the public and an overarching body which would have power to punish newspapers which breached its ethical code. We want a conscience clause so when journalists stand up on a principle of journalistic ethics they have protection in law against being dismissed. Allowing journalists genuine collective bargaining and protection from an independent trade union is key to this – it’s no surprise that the worst abuses happened in a company where the NUJ has been blocked since Wapping. A well-organised union provides a counterbalance to the power of the editors and proprietors, it can limit their excesses and gives journalists the confidence to raise their concerns.
Professor Richard Lance Keeble, Acting Head of Journalism at the University of Lincoln and author of Ethics for Journalists (Routledge)
The Leveson Inquiry is best understood as largely spectacular theatre – too trapped within the system it is attempting to reform to have any lasting effect. It is providing the illusion of moral intent by the state and its propaganda institutions – the leading media corporations – when, in reality, the system is run on ruthless profit-oriented principles.
Thus, Leveson’s priorities and those of the mainstream media covering it have reflected dominant values and sourcing routines: celebrities, leading journalists, proprietors and politicians have dominated proceedings while “ordinary” people (such as the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler) have been allowed to play their harrowing bit-parts in the Great Leveson Theatre Show before being condemned to obscurity in the wings.
Revelations about the intimate, collusive links between politicians and Fleet Street are also all too predictable. Such ties have long been analysed and documented by countless academics. And while politicians may wring their hands in guilt over being too intimate with the press in the past, Leveson is hardly likely to change this since newspapers remain far too closely integrated into the dominant structures of political, economic, cultural and ideological power. Moreover, newspapers’ ties to the intelligence services are as important as those to politicians – yet Leveson appears to have little interest in investigating these. The Hutton Inquiry into the strange death of weapons inspector Dr David Kelly had the opportunity to examine in some detail the links between hacks and spooks – but missed it.
Leveson is also predictably focusing too much on professional issues (such as the reform of press regulation and codes of conduct) and so far has shown little commitment to confronting the major determinant of media standards, namely the monopolistic structure of the industry.
Dan Hind, author of Return of the Public (Verso)
The Leveson Inquiry is obviously very important, in that it has made the newspaper industry available as a subject in public life. I have been writing about the structure of the media for several years now and I am always struck by the extent to which newspapers have sought to control discussion of the role that they play in the national organization of knowledge. Much the same is true of the broadcasters. It is still punishingly difficult to reach a sizeable public with proposals for reform that don’t conform with what the industry is willing to discuss.
Nevertheless, Leveson has opened up a space for discussion that the national newspapers can’t entirely close down. That’s important, since it means that it is now possible for progressive forces to unite around a vision of the media that they need, if they are to secure their aims. That’s what’s at stake. If you want to change society peacefully and democratically and you aren’t thinking hard about reform of the media, you need to start. Building a majority in favour of social democracy, socialism, anarchism, or any combination of the three, is impossible in the current communications regime.
At the moment the major media, including the BBC, are the instruments of a sophisticated conservatism. In The Return of the Public I describe in some detail how we can change that, so that the mainstream of information – the things that averagely busy and distracted people know – includes, for example, a tolerably clear picture of how the economy works. In a nutshell, I think that the media in a democracy should be substantively democratic. By this I mean that individual citizens should have some say in what is investigated and given publicity. In practical terms, the existing public subsidies given to journalism should be overseen and, to varying degrees, controlled, by that same public. At the moment we are paying for the privilege of being misinformed.
The balance of power is obviously changing in the media industry. This presents us with an opportunity. The industry doesn’t want us to notice this opportunity. It’s up to each of us to decide whether we are happy to leave decisions about what we know and don’t know in their hands.
David Edwards and David Cromwell, Media Lens
No one should expect radical changes to the corporate media following the Leveson Inquiry, yet another instance of established power investigating itself. But it has been somewhat useful in exposing the profound influence of corporate owners on media reporting.
For example, Harold Evans, a former Rupert Murdoch editor at the Sunday Times, described to Leveson how, in 1981, Murdoch rebuked him for reporting gloomy economic news and 'not doing what he [Murdoch] wants, in political terms'. Evans says that Murdoch came to his home and the two 'almost ended up in fisticuffs over a piece on the economy." Evans added: 'Murdoch would also haul in senior staff for meetings to tell them to alter their coverage, including the editorial line of the leader columns and telling the foreign editor to "attack the Russians more".' No wonder former Sun editor David Yelland described how editors "go on a journey where they end up agreeing with everything Murdoch says … "What would Rupert think about this?" is like a mantra inside your head’.
The renowned journalist John Pilger notes that the Inquiry has offered ‘glimpses of the power and petty gangsterism of the British tabloid press’. Clearly the phone-hacking, and its attendant police, media and political corruption, is despicable. But, adds Pilger: ‘Leveson has asked nothing about how the respectable media complemented the Murdoch press in systematically promoting corrupt, mendacious, often violent political power whose crimes make phone-hacking barely a misdemeanour.’ So, not a word about the media complicity in the supreme international crime in launching wars of aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq, and various other ‘humanitarian interventions’ in recent years. No critics of the institutional power of the corporate media have appeared before Leveson.