Hacked Off: What did we do? And did we win?

Posted: March 25, 2013 at 1:28 pm

by Brian Cathcart

Since the publication of the Leveson report last November, Hacked Off has had a simple mission: to do all we could to secure the implementation of the judgeʼs recommendations on press self-regulation.

These were the measured and careful conclusions of a senior judge after he had heard, in public, the views and the experiences of every conceivable stakeholder. We took the view that there would have been no point to the whole inquiry exercise, if the judgeʼs proposals were simply shelved.

We also believed that this particular inquiry had a special status. By their own admission in July 2011, our politicians had got too close to the editors and proprietors, or alternatively had allowed themselves to be bullied by them. These politicians could not be trusted to deal with the problem, so they outsourced the problem to Lord Justice Leveson. In those circumstances it would have been doubly wrong for them to reject or dilute the solutions he proposed, assuming they were reasonable.

And there was another factor. This was the seventh such inquiry into the press in 70 years, and all of the previous reports had been watered down or ignored, usually as a result of a cosy conspiracy between politicians and editors. Like the judge, and like most of the public, we believed that it was time to break that pattern.


What right did we have to involve ourselves?

We started in the spring of 2011 as a campaign for a public inquiry into the phone hacking scandal, but we had grown. Our petition for the implementation of the Leveson recommendations has gathered some 175,000 signatures. Tens of thousands of people have signed up for our emailed newsletters, and many of them have written to their MPs about implementing the report.

We knew that we were in tune with public opinion, as revealed in successive opinion polls (although these polls are rarely given publicity in the press).

And importantly we enjoy the support and the active engagement of many people who have experienced the worst the press can do, from Liverpool Hillsborough families to the McCanns. These were in many cases people who described their experiences to the inquiry, and who had a natural interest in seeing some consequences flow from that.

One reason why the six previous inquiries failed to improve things was that the public and the victims were excluded from the political process that followed. We wanted to prevent that happening again and the prime minister said he agreed on this. He told the inquiry he believed the real test of the outcome of the inquiry was whether it delivered what the victims wanted.


What happened when the report was published?

Although the judge called for an open and transparent process of implementation, the politicians immediately took the whole matter behind closed doors. And David Cameron, who had never previously revealed such a scruple, announced that he was reluctant to legislate in any way in relation to the press, even though the Leveson recommendations carefully protected free speech.

The Conservatives next proposed the use of Royal Charter instead of legislation to implement the recommendations and within weeks they had sunk deep into negotiations with editors and proprietors who were determined to water down the Leveson recommendations to the point where they had no impact. These were the same editors and proprietors found by Lord Justice Leveson to have ʻwreaked havoc in the lives of innocent peopleʼ.

Meanwhile, most national newspapers embarked on a campaign of disinformation about the Leveson recommendations, wrongly suggesting that they threatened freedom of expression, that they gave the police new powers in relation to journalism and that they would deter investigation and reporting.


What did we do?

We met politicians of all parties to find out what they were thinking and doing, to press the case for implementing the press regulation recommendations and to urge them to be more transparent and open.

We drafted, published and consulted upon a ʻLeveson Billʻ which would implement the recommendations in the way the judge intended.

We did our best to counter false press propaganda about the Leveson recommendations and to expose the role of proprietors and editors in their secret negotiations with Conservatives aimed at neutering the Leveson scheme.

All of this we did so far as was practical in public, and our activities can be tracked on our website. We reported on meetings with ministers, and we published relevant documents.


What did we NOT do?

For one, we did not decide the outcome. It is easily forgotten that the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties backed Leveson from the day of publication, and together they can outvote the Conservatives in both houses of parliament. Labour and the Liberal Democrats – Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg – were decisive.

We worked with both parties, and with Conservative backbenchers who shared our views, on the details of a Leveson-compliant settlement. We discussed our draft Bill with them. We discussed a possible Charter solution with them and suggested drafting. At every stage we urged all involved to stick as closely as possible to the Leveson recommendations.

We did not dictate policy to them, though it is true that we often reminded them and everybody else who would listen that Levesonʼs press self-regulation proposals are a complete package, and compromising on it was likely to render it ineffective.

We did not add amendments to the Defamation Bill. We had nothing to do with that, although we sympathised with peers who were angry at the prospect of a secret stitch-up over Leveson. We did, however, encourage and help backbenchers and frontbenchers alike to table Leveson-based amendments to the Enterprise Bill and to the Crime and Courts Bill as a means of putting pressure on the Conservatives to change course.


What happened at the famous Sunday night meeting?

We were invited by Milibandʼs team (it was his meeting, in his office), though it was clear that a three-party agreement had already been reached before we arrived. David Cameron had seen that he was likely to lose votes in both houses and so he reconsidered his position. He accepted the Labour-LibDem draft Royal Charter and the minimal statutory underpin needed to protect the chartered body from political interference (a measure suggested by Hacked Offʼs chairman).

We were there, at least in part, to help those present address the Prime Minister’s test. Was the solution one that worked for victims of press abuse and not for the convenience of politicians?

The discussions that night related mainly to two things. The first was how the process would unfold in Parliament next day in a way that all the politicians were comfortable with, and that did not permit any last-minute changes that might ʻsell outʻ the Leveson scheme. There was little argument about this.

The second was the so-called incentives to the self-regulation scheme, involving exemplary damages and court costs. Hacked Off had done a great deal of research and consultation on these matters, and we regard them as essential to effective self-regulation. We made recommendations in keeping with our Leveson Bill proposals. Oliver Letwin, for the Conservatives, was working from his own draft. Labour and the Liberal Democrats had their own views.

In the event there was no agreement on these matters and it was decided to let the Conservative draft go forward as amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill, but to discuss them further over the next week before the Bill reached its final stages in the Lords. Those discussions have been going on, and we have blogged and issued statements about them.


Did we win?

Itʼs only a beginning and it is happening in ways that Lord Justice Leveson never envisaged, but we believe that this Royal Charter has the ability to deliver effective, independent press self-regulation in line with the Leveson recommendations.

Thanks to the protective clause of legislation, and to a host of measures written into the Charter, this system should be entirely free of political interference and influence. It also poses no threat to freedom of expression. This is a result we welcome, though at the time of writing we still await the final details of the settlement, relating to the incentives.


What next?

The recognition body, which must carry out periodic checks on the press self-regulator to ensure it meets basic standards, will be established. That will take some months. Meanwhile the press has been working on setting up a regulator and that process is also likely to take months. Some newspapers say they will not join, but they do not have to in the first instance. We hope that ultimately they will see it as worthwhile and the right thing to do.


Do we regret anything?

We do not regret doing all we could as a campaigning and lobbying group to ensure that the voices of the victims and the many supporters of the Leveson recommendations were not excluded from these discussions. We were ready, and victims of press abuses were ready, to meet almost anybody, almost anywhere in the pursuit of that aim.

We do not regret accepting money to fund our activities from some people who did not want their donations made public. We understand and respect their desire to avoid the kind of hostile treatment that has been dished out to people who openly criticise the press, and we are grateful to them for their generosity. We are grateful too, to the very many generous people who have given money openly. We have been open from the outset about our funding.

Brian Cathcart is director of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.

21 comments

  1. Dedicated servers

    But Hacked Off probably needed that confrontational approach to ensure it got a hearing and kept faith with a public that remains sceptical about “the power of the press”. And I predicted, when he won his case, that the popular press would rue the day they exposed him to ridicule.

  2. Dedicated servers

    Sadly, Hacked Off doesn’t appear willing to take this reality on board. Like Lord Justice Leveson , it has been overtaken by a phenomenon that will soon make much of its work irrelevant.

  3. gary gatter

    Fantastic work. If Guido Fawkes is angered by what you are doing then you know you are on the right path. Keep up the good work and stand up for the ordinary citizens.

  4. Trevor Morgan

    It seems to me some hacks are doing their corporate masters bidding here. Ignore the creeps please.

  5. google.com

    Thanks for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting
    for your further write ups thanks once again.

  6. Greg Callus

    Evan said:

    “We assisted Baroness Hollins and Baroness O’Neill with amendments to that [Puttnam] amendment pointing up the flaws in the drafting of Lord Puttnam’s amendment … “Our” amendments – unlike Lord Puttnam’s – were not moved and we also made representations to Lord Puttnam’s supporters that he should not press his to a vote, in return for undertakings that the block on cross-party talks and the right to come back at 3rd Reading.”

    That position,which I have no reason to doubt, isn’t exactly consistent with Cathcart saying:

    “We did not add amendments to the Defamation Bill. We had nothing to do with that, although we sympathised with peers who were angry at the prospect of a secret stitch-up over Leveson. We did, however, encourage and help backbenchers and frontbenchers alike to table Leveson-based amendments to the Enterprise Bill and to the Crime and Courts Bill as a means of putting pressure on the Conservatives to change course.”

    There’s quite a difference between “we assisted … with amendments” and “we had nothing to do with [amendments to the Defamation Bill] although we sympathised”. It strikes me as just a little bit disingenuous. It’s not about the Defamation Act now, of course, but about HackedOff’s credibility in the eyes of those who were previously disposed to give it the benefit of the doubt.

    I’ll confess I chuckled at your allusion to me as the Japanese soldier, but I think you might want to check whether or not the wider war over press regulation is actually over…

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  9. Dan

    Hi Brian

    Excellent work you guys have done. Any plans for a book on the whole saga? I would love to read an overview on Leveson and the way the newspapers deliberately misreported it.

  10. Andrew

    I find you and your objectives downright creepy. Who do you think you are telling me what I can or cannot read in the newspapers or on the internet. Shame on you.

  11. Robert Reynolds

    Brian,
    Hope your message gets wide coverage!

    Until we have individual freedom in democracy, our debates on press freedom will always be clouded, in doubt as to motives and allegiances.

    Applauding the work of Hacked Off, I write against the over-selling of Leveson’s recommendations as having “carefully protected free speech’.

    Perhaps for ‘legal reasons’ (failure of expert witnesses to provide clear enough ‘evidence’), the Inquiry Team rejected formal insistence on the fundamental conditions of free speech and its due restraint in conscience. The focus was instead on the balance of power between ‘freedoms of the press’ and ‘the rights of victims’.

    As now should be ‘evident’ to all, abuses of ‘press freedom’ against ‘individual rights’, and of ‘individual rights’ against ‘press freedom’, have as their general context our collective on-going failure to secure equal individual freedom.

    Without the reality of freedom in democracy, its emulation by ‘regulation’ will always involve sham, and so the possibility of false reassurance in any apparent ‘balancing of power’. Leveson’s shift in balance, with some courage now politically translated, is no more than ‘decent’, its small disciplines offering some hope of prevention, and some hope of redress, so to raise the quality of our press and our lives.

    Demand will survive for the prosecution of scandal, even by the Spectator, in a rather better climate perhaps extending to demand for democracy. Until democratic awakening, remaining under the dictatorship of omnipresent Mammon, we should have little fear of ordinary right or left dissent being criminalised. Plain-clothes dumbing-down is for now enough, backed-up by uniformed support for the bailiffs, more serious extensions or abuses of ‘public order offence’ always in reserve.

    Economic instability and crisis may lead to social unrest, with risk as ever of moral descent, to the scandal of scapegoating, of seeing scandal in the existence of fellow-victims. All the more reason to arm ourselves with explicit understanding of democratic deficit, and of its remedy. It will not be by reference to Leveson that any last illusions on press freedom are broken, and not by evasion on equality that liberty one day is won.

    I do not expect any Hacked Off ‘confession’ of shareable understanding as to the meaning and conditions of genuine democracy, but I hope that you will allow this contribution to the wider debate, beyond palliative regulation on to the context of prevention.

  12. Dan Hodges

    “What did we NOT do?”. Say who funds you?

  13. puzzler

    I suppose saying your organisation is funded by unspecified donations from individuals who prefer to remain anonymous is openness of a sort. According to an article in Sunday’s Observer you also have the “wholehearted support of a lot of very good journalists” who would prefer not to be named,no doubt also for good reasons. It just seems a bit odd given your criticism of secretive deals.

  14. Greg Callus

    Cathcart: “We did not add amendments to the Defamation Bill. We had nothing to do with that…”

    According to Baroness Hollins, Hacked Off was “consulted”, you “advised”, and on the back of that advice, Baroness Hollins & another tabled amendments. You aren’t legislators, so obviously you didn’t add them yourselves, but you came as close to tabling amendments as any lobbying group ever gets, and they were tabled to amend the Defamation Bill. To say you had nothing to do with it, even with the qualifier of your sympathy for those who did, seems to me to be rather different to the truth.

    Baroness Hollins in Hansard (5 Feb 2013 : Column 151): “My Lords, as an expert by experience of press abuse, I consulted Hacked Off, the charity that has represented many victims of such abuse, and asked its views of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. There is widespread frustration about the lack of transparency and presumed lack of progress on implementing Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations. Given this, Hacked Off is extremely grateful for the initiative taken by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam.

    However, its advice to me was that, as they stand, the amendments appear a somewhat diluted version of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations. The amendments that I and my noble friend tabled are offered in the spirit of trying to be as faithful to Lord Justice Leveson as possible and thus to command wider support.

    Many victims fear that a deal is being brokered with the press behind closed doors, one that does not include the independent element that Lord Justice Leveson considered so important. Hacked Off’s advice was that the characteristics of the regulator need to be detailed enough so that implementation of Lord Justice Leveson’s criteria is not fudged. Interestingly, most of the draft Bills already published spell out the criteria in some detail.”

    • Evan Harris

      Greg,
      As I replied on twitter some weeks ago, you are wrong and you see conspiracy where it does not exist.

      You challenge this statement, “We did not add amendments to the Defamation Bill. We had nothing to do with that, although we sympathised with peers who were angry at the prospect of a secret stitch-up over Leveson.” You are blatantly wrong and I explained this on twitter. Ignoring the response and raising exactly the same refuted claims in a blog comment is tiresome.

      Baroness Hollins states quite correctly that she “consulted Hacked Off, the charity that has represented many victims of such abuse, and asked its views of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam.”

      This was AFTER Lord Puttnam tabled his amendments with cross-party support. The first we knew about it was when they had ALREADY been tabled. We assisted Baroness Hollins and Baroness O’Neill with amendments to that amendment pointing up the flaws in the drafting of Lord Puttnam’s amendment (including the line that was especially criticised and removed by Lord Fowler at 3rd Reading in the Lords). “Our” amendments – unlike Lord Puttnam’s – were not moved and we also made representations to Lord Puttnam’s supporters that he should not press his to a vote, in return for undertakings that the block on cross-party talks and the right to come back at 3rd Reading.

      The mood of the House was such that the Puttnam amendments needed to be put to the vote.

      Hacked Off always knew that the Crime and Courts Bill and the Enterprise Bill were amendable for full Leveson if needed and that the Defamation Bill could not then be held back by the Prime Minister. This was conformed by the Bill’s sponsor, Lord McNally, on Monday night and was also implied by his speech on the Puttnam amendments on the night that that they were made.

      The Defamation Bill fuss was created by some in the newspaper industry as a mechanism to attack the pro-Leveson majorities in both Houses. The newspapers never showed much interest in the Defamation Bill pre-Puttnam and have rapidly lost interest in it post-Puttnam.

      Greg Callus is like a Japanese soldier fighting an imaginary enemy after the end of the war.

    • simon cramp

      i suggest about drafting amedments to any bill anyone can do that if peers or mps then want to move them for a particalar bill they can let not put this debate into nit picking and i suggest you chosse your words carefully when qouted a barnoess as i have never heard say such a thing and i being follow the whole story

  15. George Tait

    I think Guido needs to get his calculator out, poor love.

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  17. Guido Fawkes

    Fact Check – you have not been “open from the outset about our funding” – quite the opposite in fact. You are also wrong to say Liberal Democrat and Labour parties together “can outvote the Conservatives in both houses of parliament.” The parliamentary arithmetic is that they can’t in the Commons hence the Lib-Con government.

  18. Transparency now

    Hi Brian

    Please can you tell me where Hacked Off publish their accounts? How can I see who is funding you?

    Thanks