The press is always at its ugly worst when it is reporting on issues which affect its own interests. Its self-image as a fearless crusader, speaking truth to power, is put to one side as it spins and distorts in accordance with the wishes of its proprietors. A majority of the population supports statutory regulation of the press as does the National Union of Journalists. The proprietors fear that this will also be the view of Lord Justice Leveson. And, just in case it is, they are getting their retaliation in first.
This week has seen the beginning of a process of leaking, spinning and briefing designed to intimidate and undermine the Leveson Part 1 Report even before it is written. The process is a familiar one.
First there are the “leaks” – designed to suggest that poor old Brian Leveson has taken leave of his senses. On Wednesday, the Guardian (which should know better), told us about the content of the “Rule 13 notices” sent to the press:
“Leveson’s Rule 13 notice is understood to be around 100 pages long with a five-page summary listing the areas Leveson is intending to make critical pronouncements on, according to sources. These are expected to contain explicit adverse comment and could go to anyone in a newspaper group Leveson feels has failed to uphold standards, as well as individuals from any other sectors who face criticism in the judge’s final report. Witnesses during the 197-day inquiry included politicians, police and media regulators” (emphasis added).
These “sources” are the very newspaper proprietors who have been sent these letters, in confidence. The purpose of the letters is to permit those who “may be” criticised to respond. This involves responding confidentially to the Inquiry, not in the columns of newspapers.
This point appears to have escaped “Independent” editor Chris Blackhurst who complained that Lord Justice Leveson was “loading a gun” and preparing to launch a “damning indictment” of the national press. Mistaking a Rule 13 letter for the Inquiry Report itself he said
“I suppose if I was to summarise, and I think I can, it throws the book at the industry. No titles are singled out and no individuals are singled out, but it basically is a point-by-point demolition of the industry.”
This demonstrates a basic failure to understand purpose of a Rule 13 letter. As the Inquiry pointed out in a subsequent statement
“These letters are a standard part of inquiry procedures and give private notice of possible criticism in order that recipients can respond before any concluded view is reached. By their nature such letters are, of course, one-sided documents and are not intended (as it makes clear) to deal with the positive aspects of the activities of the Press: plainly, no warning is necessary for that purpose”.
In other words, it is not surprising that these letters are critical: that is their purpose. As the Inquiry goes on to say (with characteristic understatement and restraint)
The extent to which these letters are being made the subject of comment and, indeed, misrepresentation, is itself not without significance
In other words, criticism of press irresponsibility is eloquently demonstrated by irresponsible reporting of the criticism.
Second, there is the “briefing”. On Friday the Times – the respectable voice of the Murdoch empire – reported that [££], even if Leveson proposes statutory regulation the Prime Minister will reject it:
“David Cameron is preparing to reject statutory intervention in the regulation of the press even if it is strongly recommended by Lord Justice Leveson”.
This apparently derives from a “well placed source” – perhaps a Downing Street spin doctor? There are two points to be made (neither of which appears to have occurred to the Times journalists who laundered the leak).
First, such a position is entirely inconsistent with everything the Prime Minister has said since he established the Inquiry in July 2011: he has repeatedly said that the question is whether any recommendation meets the “Dowler test”. As he told the Inquiry on 14 June 2012:
“that’s the test of all this. It’s not: do the politicians or the press feel happy with what we get? It’s: are we really protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves by this process. That’s what the test is”.
The idea that, whatever Lord Justice Leveson says and whatever the Dowlers and the other victims say the Prime Minister will reject their views is a remarkable one. This would be a U-turn so striking and obvious that even the media would have to take notice. None of this is considered by the “Times” launderers.
Secondly, and more interestingly is the question of why “well placed sources” are leaking this kind of thing to the press. Who are they trying to impress? What criticisms are they trying to head off? Is the Prime Minister flying a kite – to see how strong the public reaction to a U-turn? Is he hoping to get the press onside for the party conference season? These are interesting questions which, again, do not trouble the “Times”.
The majority of the public supports Leveson and supports strong regulation of the press. The politicians who reflect this majority view – perhaps most Lib Dem and Labour MPs and a good few Conservatives – need to make themselves heard as the spinning continues. So far the only response has been from Simon Hughes MP who rightly suggests that
“David Cameron must ignore some of his Tory colleagues and listen to Lord Justice Leveson”.
The next step might be to require Downing Street to issue an unequivocal denial of the “Times” story: why has it not said that the report is false?
The Leveson Report is likely to be published early this autumn. It should be obvious to anyone who has seen him in action that the Judge will not be intimidated by leaking, spinning and bullying. But there is an important case to be fought in the court of public opinion over the next couple of months. A careful eye needs to be kept on press attempts to distort and manipulate the arguments to support the self-interest of its proprietors.