Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Culture Secretary Karen Bradley have launched a public consultation on the press, but in flagrant breach of the spirit of honest consultation they are twisting the truth and loading the odds.
The full online document runs to 35 deeply flawed pages, but this article analyses only the short introduction written for members of the public by Rudd and Bradley. The ministers’ words appear in italic text; our comments on them are in pink.
Note: Despite the failings of the consultation, Hacked Off takes the view that it is worthwhile for members of the public to respond and we encourage people to do so. To help we have prepared this.
CONSULTATION ON THE LEVESON INQUIRY AND ITS IMPLEMENTATION: FOREWORD BY THE CULTURE SECRETARY AND HOME SECRETARY
“A free press is an essential component of a fully functioning democracy. It should tell the truth without fear or favour and hold the powerful to account. Yet the press has a significant power itself, which it must use responsibly. We know that some parts of the press have abused their position in the past and ignored not only their own Code of Practice but the law. Police officers and public officials have been found guilty of serious offences. We therefore owed it to the victims of the past to make sure that what happened before cannot happen again.”
Deliberately misleading. Note the stress on the past, as if problems with the press were entirely historical and are no longer cause for concern. Breaches of the law and the Code never ceased and continue today on a scale that may even be greater than before the Leveson Inquiry. Only weeks ago a senior journalist working for Rupert Murdoch was jailed for activities which took place after the Leveson Report.
“The Leveson Inquiry was therefore established in July 2011 by the Coalition Government to look into the role of the press and the police in phone hacking and other illegal practices in the British press.”
Deliberately misleading. This gives a false impression that press and police wrongdoing have already been tackled. The full terms of reference can be found here. They can be distilled into two parts. The first, which has been completed, was to inquire into the culture, practices and ethics of the press with a view to recommending reforms to regulation that would better protect the public without giving government influence over what the press can publish. And the second, which has not yet begun, involves among other things getting to the bottom of press criminality and the involvement of the police.
“The first part of the Inquiry heard evidence from more than 300 people, including some of those who had been affected by the most egregious behaviour. Nearly £50 million of public money has so far been spent to ensure that the transgressions of the past cannot be repeated, and that victims of press intrusion have justice.”
Deliberately misleading. This is an attempt to give the public the impression that Part One of the Leveson Inquiry was hugely expensive. In fact it cost £5m. It is only possible to achieve a total figure of £50m if you add all the costs of all of the criminal investigations and prosecutions resulting from press activities. They would have happened whether the Leveson Inquiry happened or not, and it is precisely because there was so much criminality that we need Leveson Part 2 to find out what really went wrong and who was really responsible.
“Much has changed in that time. Three police investigations have investigated a wide range of offences.”
Deliberately misleading. Readers are likely to infer that the investigations were not foreseen at the time Parliament set up the Leveson Inquiries in 2011, but that is not the case. Ministers and MPS were fully aware in 2011 that police investigations were under way and would have to be completed before Part Two could begin. It was also fully understood that this might take a few years. Events are unfolding exactly as foreseen and nothing has changed except that the investigations are now complete and it is time for Part Two.
“A clear message has been sent to all police officers and public officials that receiving payments for confidential information will not be tolerated and will be dealt with robustly. The College of Policing has developed national guidance for police officers and staff, and published a code of ethics.”
Deliberately misleading. These practices were against the law before Leveson and remain so. Nothing substantive has changed. It is precisely because police officers and officials knew accepting payments was illegal that those who took bribes did everything in their power to conceal them.
“We have seen arguably the most significant changes to press self-regulation in decades.”
Deliberately and flagrantly misleading. This is a reference to the creation of IPSO – the big newspapers’ replacement for their discredited ‘non-regulator’, the PCC. But the industry submitted their IPSO blueprint to the Leveson Inquiry and the judge declared that it ‘fell far short’ of what was required. Leveson also said it conformed to a historic ‘pattern of cosmetic reform’ in the industry’s responses to crises of standards. Further, Parliament has fully endorsed the Leveson standards of independence and effectiveness required of press regulators and IPSO, by its own admission, does not meet them.
“In that context, we are now seeking views from the public on two issues that relate to the inquiry: the different options for commencement of section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013; and whether proceeding with Part 2 of the Inquiry is still appropriate, proportionate and in the public interest.”
Deliberately misleading. The implication here is that there is some inevitability about the existence of these choices, that it was always the case that sooner or later ministers would have to choose. This is false. In 2013 ministers promised and Parliament approved Section 40 with no ifs and buts; a delay in commencement was permitted (as it often is in legislation) purely to to give time for ministers to make the necessary administrative arrangements. As for Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry, in 2011 Parliament fully intended and the Prime Minister pledged to victims that it would proceed as planned when the criminal prosecutions were at an end, whenever that occurred. In both cases the government is going back on its word and giving itself choices it ought not to have.
“These issues are too important not to consult on, and we are aware of the strength of feeling around these important topics. We therefore hope that a wide range of interested parties will engage with the questions set out here. This is a government that works for everyone and not just the privileged few. We remain steadfastly committed to ensuring that the inexcusable practices that led to the Leveson Inquiry being established can never happen again.”
In sum, this short introduction, signed personally by the Culture Secretary and the Home Secretary, is deliberately misleading on at least seven counts. The persistent, nagging message they are trying to send is this:
“The press behaved badly, but that was years ago and loads of things have been done to sort it out. There is nothing to worry about, but we’ve been left with two tiresome loose ends. If you give the right answers in our consultation we’ll be able to tie them up without unnecessary expense and bother.’”
This is wholly misleading. And distortions aside, think of all the things the two ministers have left out of this introduction that are relevant and might be of concern to the public. Think of the failure of IPSO to mount any investigation, impose any fine or secure any proportionate front-page corrections to front-page outrages. Think of the open defiance offered to IPSO by the editor of the Sun.
Think, too, of the criminality of the Fake Sheikh, and the reinstatement of Rebekah Brooks as CEO of Rupert Murdoch’s News UK despite her failure to prevent criminality in the past. Think of the recent vicious campaigns of personal abuse and intimidation against individuals by newspapers, which encouraged even worse online attacks.
Finally, think about the emergence of Impress, a fully independent and effective regulator in full conformity with the Leveson/Charter standards that news publishers can now join.
There is much, much more that these two Cabinet ministers might have mentioned, but they chose not to. Why? Far from serving the interests of everyone in the country, as they claim, they are clearly intent on serving the interests of a privileged few press billionaires.