In Focus: Some Leveson thoughts

First published in February 2012

Lord Leveson

So, I finally got round to watching some of the evidence statements given to the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics this weekend.

So wide is the remit of this Inquiry, initiated in the fall out that followed the dramatic eruption of the phone-hacking scandal at the News Of The World last summer, that I fear its findings will either be too detailed or too generic to be of any real use. Either in ensuring that any future evidence of criminal activity on the part of journalists isn’t ignored by the police and hidden by their employers, or in making the press at large a more respectful and respected industry.

But the top line up of celebrities, editors and other interested parties has made for entertaining (if occasionally harrowing) viewing, and kudos to Brian Leveson and his team for putting all that content online for future consumption – there’s several PHDs worth of material on the Leveson site already, and the best way to navigate it is to pick a person you’re interested in hearing from on this list here, and then find the relevant day’s content from this page here.

The Leveson proceedings, of course, have been accompanied by a plethora of commentary from media, political, legal, academic and other circles. So much comment, in fact, it would be almost impossible for me to say anything here that hasn’t already been said ten times before. But, partly to justify how much time I spent watching footage from the Inquiry last weekend, here are the three main issues that come to my mind.

1. Enforcing the law
There’s been a lot of talk about new rules to regulate the press, yet the problem in Hack-gate, surely, wasn’t a lack of rules, but an unwillingness to enforce them. Hacking into voicemail accounts is illegal, and there was plenty of evidence that a number of News Of The World journalists and contractors had either done so, or paid others to do so on their behalf. Yet only two were prosecuted.

I know the second phase of Leveson’s Inquiry will focus on the relationship between the police and the press, but surely the two most important questions stemming from last year’s scandal at the NOTW were this: why did the Metropolitan Police fail to prosecute most of the hackers (budgetary issues, incompetence, political pressure, fear, corruption?), and what can be done if and when companies deliberately cover up the criminal actions of their employees, as it is alleged News International did?

Jumping into the tricky domains of privacy rights and possible state regulation of the press before answering those core questions seems, to me, a case of misguided priorities.

2. Tabloids and superstars
The debate over privacy rights long precedes the Hack-gate explosion, with the press initially on the offensive over what they saw as an abuse by some in the legal profession of the 1998 Human Rights Acts to help rich celebrities and corporations protect secrets it was, some might argue, in the public interest to expose. But now the papers are on the defensive, after a string of celebrities and other members of the public took to Leveson’s stand to recount the horrors of having tabloid hacks invade their lives.

While privacy law is something that does deserve both scrutiny and debate – though probably better away from something as emotive as the Hack-gate scandal – one thing that is rarely mentioned in that discussion is the often-times symbiotic relationship between famous people, the media and brands they work for, and the tabloid and celebrity press. Many of the celebs who have spoken at the Inquiry have disputed the idea that they courted the tabs for coverage at the start of their careers, partly to debunk that common if dubious argument: “the papers made you famous, so now they have a right to make your private life public”.

Now, perhaps those celebs didn’t personally court the tabloids, but if we’re being honest, the PR agencies of the music, movie, TV and publishing companies they worked for, and the brands they took sponsorship from, almost certainly did. Because those PRs know that a small number of tabloid-esque newspapers, magazines, websites and TV shows have access to large portions of the population. Those media are still the biggest generators of hype, and play an important part in helping certain individuals build the sort of public profile that enables them to demand mega-bucks fees oblivious of their artistic talents. Big profile equals big audience equals big fee.

And you only have to look at the sorts of articles that appear in the ‘most read’ lists on tabloid websites to see that it’s reporting on celebrity’s private lives that is ensuring the tabloid media maintain their mass audience appeal in the digital age, which in turn means they are as valuable as ever to anyone charged with the task of building the profile – and fees – of a new singer, actor, athlete, writer, presenter or reality TV wannabe. The private lives of today’s stars are certainly helping the stars of the future.

Does any of that justify newspapers invading the lives of the famous, and splashing private moments, sensitive secrets, twisted truths and bitchy remarks across their pages? Probably not. But it would be disingenuous and unhelpful for the rich and famous to disregard the role the popular press plays in turning talented actors and such like into multi-million pound fee earning superstars. And that’s surely something to consider in the wider debate on the human right of privacy?

3. Everyone’s a media now
My final Leveson point was touched on in this post on the Fleet Street Blues blog earlier this week. There has been a lot of talk of regulating the press. But what does that mean, actually, in an era when everyone is a potential journalist with the theoretical ability to reach millions in minutes? Leveson has taken evidence from some in the social media and blogging domain of course, and this issue is on other agendas. But before too much effort is put into creating an all new press regulator, perhaps some serious thought should be given to what exactly the ‘press’ is?

And here end my Leveson thoughts. For now.