Imagine how the press would be dealing with the Leveson Report and its sequel if an industry other than their own was involved.
Here is what has happened. A whole industry has been roundly condemned by an official public inquiry, with the judge declaring that ‘on too many occasions’ responsibilities had been ignored and concluding: ‘This has damaged the public interest, caused real hardship and, also on occasion, wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people . . .’ The judge also made a series of carefully thought-out recommendations for change.
In addition, the inquiry addressed the relationship between the tainted industry and politicians, finding that relationships were ‘too close’ and expressing concern about contacts behind closed doors. The judge said:
It is, however, the responsibility of the politicians to ensure that the decisions that are taken are seen to be based on the public interest as a whole. This means the extent to which they are lobbied … should be open and transparent; and that the public should therefore have a basic understanding of the process. … . A good start would be for those steps towards greater transparency to be taken in relation to … lobbying about this Report.
So the industry stands condemned and the politicians are warned to keep their distance from it.
Now imagine that four days after the publication of this worrying report the representatives of the wrongdoers were invited for morning coffee with the prime minister at Downing Street, to be told that he did not intend to implement key recommendations of the inquiry.
How would the press have reported that?
If the inquiry had related to, say, the companies that operate care homes, the headlines would have been thunderous: ‘DAVE LETS ABUSERS OFF’, ‘BACK-DOOR DEAL PUTS VULNERABLE IN PERIL’, ‘PM BINS DAMNING £5M CARE HOME REPORT’. Editorials in the Mail and the Sun would have railed against cosy deals contrary to the public interest, called on MPs to ensure the judge’s report was implemented in full – and probably dropped hints about corruption and party funding.
But when exactly that sequence of events occurs in relation to their own industry, in other words when their own interests are engaged, editors and proprietors don’t just have a blind spot, they deploy a ‘reality reversal’ machine.
Instead of righteous condemnation of cosy deals in Downing Street, the meeting is portrayed as valuable, positive and constructive. Instead of denunciation of the prime minister for cowardice or worse we see praise for his wisdom and courage. Instead of concern for the potential human damage that can result from ignoring the findings of a judge-led public inquiry, most of the papers simply boast that they know best.
Let’s say next that the care home corporations gathered at the Delaunay restaurant in central London to tell the world they were prepared to accept some but not all of the recommendations of the inquiry – on their count 40 out of 47 but perhaps really only half. How would the newspapers have reacted then?
They would surely have denounced the effrontery and arrogance of the corporations and demanded immediate tough legislation from the government to bring them to heel. Stories of the victims of care home malpractice would have been given great prominence. MPs would have been encouraged to write articles condemning the Government’s stance and demanding retribution.
And any defence from the care home industry suggesting that most homes gave excellent services and had dedicated, professional staff would have been given short shrift. As Lord Justice Leveson put it
I know of no organised profession, industry or trade in which the serious failings of the few are overlooked or ignored because of the good done by the many. Were it so in any other case, the press would be the very first to expose such practices.
But again, none of this applies when the industry in trouble is the press. From the editors of national papers we still hear that Leveson’s report is unfair, unbalanced and yes, would put us on the slippery slope to Zimbabwe. They will decide for themselves what needs to be done about self-regulation. Reality is again reversed.
In his 1993 “Review of Press Self-Regulation”, Sir David Calcutt noted that the press had failed properly to implement the substance of the recommendations which related to setting up the Press Complaints Commission (para 5.24). He concluded:
the press has demonstrated that it is itself unwilling to put in place a regulatory system which commands the confidence, not only of the press (which I am sure it does) but also of the public and which fairly holds the balance between them and I see no realistic possibility of that being changed by voluntary action (para 5.29)
Nothing has changed. The press have not offered to implement the substance of the Leveson recommendations and they are unwilling to put in place a proper regulatory system.
Only the oversight of an independent body such as Ofcom (or an Independent Recognition Commissioner) will provide the impetus for the establishment of a proper, independent, self-regulatory body. It is for this reason that the press will continue to oppose it.
Are parliamentarians and the public going to allow the press to get away with it all over again?