Judge sends press, politics and police to stocks

Lord Justice Leveson has cast his judgement on the British press. For many leading institutions, the verdict is damning. Are the problems caused by human mistakes, or something deeper?

For a year of political drama, the Leveson Inquiry has cast a piercing gaze into the concealed inner world of newspapers. Yesterday, its final report on the ‘Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press’ was published – and the troubling reality behind some of Britain’s most powerful people and institutions was exposed.

The Inquiry – chaired by Lord Justice Leveson – was born from scandal. It was set up when long-running tabloid News of the World was revealed to have hacked the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

The investigation did not take long to expose a flagrant disregard for press ethics across huge sections of the newspaper industry. In his report, Leveson highlights ‘outrageous’ reporting of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance: many newspapers, he says, were guilty of libel. Deceptive tactics like court surveillance and blagging have long been common, as have sensational stories that callously trample on the feelings and rights of subjects from celebrities to crime victims.

The report details failings beyond the newsroom: London’s Metropolitan Police, for example, failed to properly investigate the hacking claims. Leveson is keen to stress that this is not down to corruption. But a close friendship between top police manager John Yates and a News International executive did create the impression that law enforcement and the press were ‘too close’.

Did the cosiness go further? That was tested when the government was asked to judge the bid of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for an increased stake in BSkyB. Frédéric Michel – a lobbyist paid to fight News Corp’s case – bombarded government advisor Adam Smith with an irresistible charm offensive. The response from Smith, who represented Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, compromised the government’s duty to treat Murdoch’s media conglomerate without bias.

Leveson has been highly critical of such transgressions. But he is also positive. ‘I know how vital the press is,’ he said, as he announced the publication of his report. ‘The press operating freely and in the public interest is one of the true safeguards of our democracy’.

Taking stock

Some share that optimism. Largely, they argue, the problems of the press are down to foolish mistakes, selfish behaviour and short-sighted misjudgement. Leveson’s report, they say, identifies that human error causes corruption: by cracking down on these individual slip-ups, we can reform our troubled press.

Others disagree. When newspapers are run by large and powerful companies bent on increasing their sales, they say, of course the press will be dominated by seedy reporting and sinister political influence. It is not individuals, they say, but institutions that created this mess.

You Decide

  1. Are the problems identified by Leveson’s report down to individual errors or institutional failings?
  2. How should institutions respond to the Leveson report?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are one of the powerful people that have been criticised by the Leveson report. Write a short diary entry describing your feelings.
  2. Read the executive summary of Leveson’s report. For each of the sections, create an ‘explainer’, presented in any way you wish.

Some People Say...

“The British press is rotten to the core.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care?
The Leveson Inquiry examined to extent to which newspapers misreport events and sensationalise stories: its subject was the news people all over the UK read every day. Because newspapers are the way most people find out about the world around them, so it is essential that what they report is as accurate and air as possible.
I don’t read newspapers though!
The Inquiry also looked at online media – the vast majority of newspapers now have an internet presence. But you’d be right to point out that newspapers are perhaps less important than decades ago. One of the major criticisms of Leveson’s recommendations was that they did not take account of how to deal with things like blogs and Twitter, which are increasingly important, but also difficult to regulate.

Word Watch

Lord Justice Leveson
Sir Brian Henry Leveson is one of the most senior judges in the UK. He first entered the public eye as a barrister, when he led the case for the prosecution of serial child murderer Rosemary West. But with this inquiry he has become a minor celebrity, despite keeping a mild and measured tone throughout the questioning.
John Yates
As Assistant Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police Force, Yates was one of Britain’s leading law enforcement officers. He was particularly praised for coordinating the UK response to the 2004 Tsunami and investigating the Cash for Honours scandal in 2006. Last year, he was accused of failing to properly investigate phone hacking at News of the World, and he resigned from Scotland Yard.
Jeremy Hunt
Currently Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt served as Culture Secretary before the last Cabinet reshuffle. As part of the role, he was tasked with judging whether News Corp – owned by News of the World owner Rupert Murdoch – should be allowed to extend its control over broadcaster BSkyB. In the Leveson Inquiry, Hunt was cleared of acting with any bias toward the case, and praised for dealing with as difficult situation well. His Special Advisor Adam Smith resigned shortly after the incident.

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