While groups campaigning against the abuse of media power wait impatiently for the start of the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking at the News of the World, activists should not lose sight of more pressing opportunities to force the Coalition government to act.
Two issues present themselves for instant scrutiny.
· Should the public interest test be strengthened in case of surprise takeover moves in media ownership?
· Declarations made so far about meetings between ministers and media executives make a mockery of David Cameron’s promise to strength the ministerial code of conduct.
Lord Justice Leveson is unlikely to finish taking evidence until middle of next year and it might not be until the end of 2012 before his inquiry has reached any conclusions on “the relationship between the press and the public and the related issue of press regulation.”
But the media landscape has changed dramatically since the closure of the News of the World. Research by Press Gazette and the media information company Mediatel shows that with the inclusion of the Metro, Associated Newspapers (publishers of the Daily Mail) is now the biggest national newspaper publishing group with a weekly circulation exceeding that of News International.
Similarly the purchase of Channel 5 by Richard Desmond’s Northern and Shell media group (publishers of the Daily Express and Daily Star) underlines the need to monitor the continued growth in cross-media ownership.
In order to keep pace with further changes – and even perhaps a renewed bid by News Corporation for full control of BSkyB – the shadow culture secretary Ivan Lewis has proposed a new public interest test for future takeovers. He wants the government to be given new powers to determine whether a broadcasting owner is a “fit and proper person”.
An equally pressing case can be made for a further tightening in the ministerial code to regulate contact between national newspapers and politicians. Immediately after the judge was asked to make long-term recommendations, the Prime Minister announced that in future ministers would be required to issue a public record of all their meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors.
But the declarations so far are totally inadequate. The lists published so far give no hint as to either the purpose of the outcome of the many meetings which took place with Rupert and James Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks and other News International executives.
Cameron hides behind the catch-all term “general discussion” – a practice now being repeated by other Coalition ministers and the Labour leader Ed Miliband.
Again activists could campaign for a far more meaningful code of conduct which could take effect immediately without waiting for Leveson’s recommendations.
· Ministers should avoid meeting or socialising with proprietors, executives and editors when a takeover bid or similar application or referral is being considered by the government or regulators such as Ofcom, the Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading.
· Ministers, party leaders, shadow ministers and special advisers must list not only the date and nature of meetings and social engagements but also the purpose and any outcome.
· Full declaration is required of negotiations aimed at securing party political promotion in newspapers and other media outlets, such as signed articles, endorsement of press campaigns or interviews.
The need to find immediate issues on which to campaign was highlighted during the initial meeting of the Co-ordinating Committee for Media Reform formed under the auspices of Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre. (2.9.2011)
The opening speaker Dr Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust, said it was important not to let memories fade about the phone hacking scandal.
“Lord Justice Leveson is strong minded, independent and determined to get on with it but his initial inquiry into press regulations and the relationship with the public might take a year, through to the autumn of 2012. The second part of the inquiry into phone hacking will take even longer, so it could be a two to three year inquiry...so we must make sure the momentum is not lost.”
Brian Cathcart, a founder member of the campaign Hacked-off which led the demands for a far-reaching public inquiry, said they had to continue to build on cases like that of the hacking into the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
“We must keep attention focussed on the fact that most of the victims are not celebrities or politicians, not just the rich and the famous, but innocent victims. In fact most of the victims were innocent bystanders.”
Damian Tambini of LSE voiced wider concerns about the two-part structure of the inquiry. He thought it was unwise to have started by examining press regulation and the relationship between politicians and the media when it was more than likely that the second part of the inquiry into phone hacking would reveal “a far deeper problem of collusion which needs to be addressed.”
He backed up his remarks by questioning the promise of the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to outline on September 14 the likely timetable for the review which will precede a green and white paper ahead of new Communications Act.
“The problems which have arisen from the backwards structure of the Leveson Inquiry have been compounded by the Communications Act review because policy doors might close before Leveson has had a chance to report.”
Despite the pressing nature of some of the issues thrown up by the long-draw out process of the Leveson inquiry, many of the academic and media activists brought together by the Co-ordinating Commission for Media Reform stressed the importance of presenting evidence which examined basic issues like the origins of media power and the reasons why politicians across the political divide had been so fearful of challenging media proprietors and especially the newspapers of News International.
(Nicholas Jones 5.9.2011)