The Leveson Whitewash

December 5, 2012

–Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School. The opinions expressed are his own.–

If you ask a lawyer what to do, he’ll recommend a legal remedy – what do you expect? In the same way, many of our politicians have a background as lawyers, so no wonder we have such a proliferation of unnecessary laws. Besides, it does provide plenty of work for old pals…

The Leveson Report fits the pattern. From the welter of reaction to it, I am amazed at how rarely the word “whitewash” seems to crop up, because that is what it is. It not only appears to be totally relaxed about the close, not to say intimate relationships between press and politicians we have seen exposed in recent months but, even worse, it is apparently unconcerned about the role played by the police – which is the most disturbing aspect of the whole sorry tale.

Since there was obviously no public interest defence for hacking the phones of the Dowlers, it was plainly a criminal offence, for which the perpetrators should go to jail for a longish stretch. But if Leveson had left matters there, the question of why the police had been so inert and of why they could not be relied on in the future in similar situations would have been thrown into sharp focus. We would have been left with the (correct) conclusion that there was no gap in the law, only in the failure to apply it on the part of a police force that was in an extremely unhealthy relationship with parts of the Fourth Estate.

Instead, the report apparently glides over police failings to reach the conclusion that Something Must Be Done – even if it makes things worse.

What happened to the Dowlers, Christopher Jeffries and all the other ordinary folk (i.e. excluding celebs and politicians) who have suffered at the hands of the tabloids simply because they were in some way related to a sensational crime was appalling, but it is not at all obvious what can be done about it.

On the one hand, much of what was done to them was actually illegal and if the press had not felt so confident that the police would give them no trouble, they would never have dared behave in such a fashion. To that extent, the problem is one of police corruption, not really anything to do with press regulation at all.

However, even here there is a caveat.

Firstly, though hacking is, quite rightly, illegal in normal situations, we do need journalists to be able to invoke the public interest defence in appropriate circumstances. For example, we would all have wanted journalists to feel safe to hack a few phones, if necessary, in order to put together the story about the way some MPs were overstating their expenses (in the event, it seems the Daily Telegraph didn’t need to break the law).

Secondly, we have all heard the old adage: “hard cases make bad law”. No doubt many awful crimes could be prevented by giving police more powers, installing even more closed circuit TV and allowing the authorities to bug our homes, offices and pubs at will, but we regard the loss of our basic freedoms as too high a price to pay in order to prevent the occasional atrocity. Likewise, the terrible wrong done to a few innocent victims like the Dowlers should not be used as justification for emasculating the press.

Now it is all very well for Ed Miliband and the reliably illiberal, undemocratic Liberal Democrats to tell us not to worry, that legislation would not be the thin end of the wedge, that we can count on forbearance from the Government (which Government? all future governments?), but experience suggests that when a government is chafing against the limits on its powers, it will cast around for laws to invoke and will not be inhibited by reassuring commitments given years ago by one of its predecessors. Can you imagine a future Alistair Campbell refraining from using every legal device at his disposal while the press digs up dirt on his activities?

Sooner or later, the executive finds a use for whatever legal powers we grant them and it is not necessarily the one for which we intended them to be used – just remember the way the last Government used anti-terrorist legislation against Iceland during the banking crisis in 2008.

From a broader perspective, the news media have long been in a sort of equilibrium that is bearable, though far from ideal, whereby the inbuilt right-wing bias of the national press is balanced by the left-wing tilt of the BBC. We are now seeing this balance of power being overturned by the new internet-based media, which threaten to make both TV and newspapers irrelevant.

The fact that the internet is unregulated – thank heaven – is one reason for the vehemence of the press response to Leveson. The print media already find it hard to compete with the free news feed from Reuters, Google, Yahoo, and umpteen other sources, including the newspapers’ own webpages, especially as the internet starts with the legal advantage of being mostly exempt from libel law.  Regulation threatens to finish the press off altogether. For example, any regulation to stop the press “monstering” of Christopher Jeffries, whose only crime was to live next door to a murder victim, would have left the jungle of online comment, blogs and tweets untouched.

In fact, there is a parallel here between the treatment handed out to Mr Jeffries by the tabloid press and the way some schoolchildren have used social networks to persecute classmates and, it seems, teachers. If cyber-bullying by kids is so hard to stop, it seems unlikely that we will find a way to prevent online character assassination by the internet commentators and news purveyors who ultimately replace the printed tabloids.

The other reason why the press is so furious about Leveson is its dark suspicion that the politicians are actually motivated by a thirst for revenge for how the newspapers treated them when their cosy little expenses racket was exposed, and there is probably more than a grain of truth to this suspicion. Many in the political class clearly see this as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to turn the tables on the newspapers and make their erstwhile tormentors into lapdogs.

As far as the general public is concerned, a charitable interpretation of their reported enthusiasm for legislation would be that it is the knee-jerk response of people who have more pressing concerns at the moment. A less charitable view would be that it is an example of good old British humbug. After all, the gutter press are in the business of selling papers, and if they thought that behaving responsibly would sell more papers, they would do it.

In short, the message to anyone who thinks the papers need regulating is: do it yourself. If you don’t like them, don’t buy them. In the end, the tabloids are frightened of their readers, as has been demonstrated on a number of issues where they were finally forced to back off by the threat of a buyers’ strike (e.g. the Hillsborough scandal). Sadly, I suspect that many of the people who tell pollsters how awful the tabloids are and how much they need regulating nonetheless carry on buying them.

What about a knighthood for Rupert Murdoch? For services to British hypocrisy?

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