One of Lord Justice Leveson’s most troubling conclusions was that he found nothing which gave “rise to any legitimate public concern” about the way information flows from the state to the press. He thought the interaction between politicians and newspapers was in “robust good health.”
But the report and recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry (29.11.2012) fly in the face of reality. The judge failed to come to terms with ways in which the government of the day can try to manipulate the news agenda with Conservative – or Labour – supporting newspapers.
In delivering his recommendations, Leveson criticised the newspapers for having been so active in lobbying ministers in advance of publication of his own report – and in arguing their case so vociferously against state regulation of the press.
But his pained rebuke was a reflection of the contradictions in his conclusions. The image of Leveson recommendations turning Britain back three hundred years to the “dark ages” of a licensed press (Daily Mail) – by the judge having the temerity to suggest legislation to underpin independent regulation – was a classic illustration of the power of campaigning journalism – a campaign being waged to the mutual advantage of press proprietors and Conservative politicians.
In presenting his report Leveson said his purpose had not been to concern himself with the “relationship of everyday political journalism”. He considered “spin, so-called anonymous briefings and the practice of feeding favoured journalists” were not central to his work.
But the black arts of media manipulation are the daily currency of highly-politicised press campaigns – as demonstrated by the proprietors’ pre-emptive strike against the judge and his assessors.
If the judge had decided to turn his back to the impact of the day-to-day realities of political journalism, he was hardly in a position to start grandstanding about the good health of the “free flow of information” between state and press.
What did Leveson think David Cameron was up to when he said his texts to Rebekah Brooks meant they would be “pushing the same agenda” or her reply that she would “love working together” with the Prime Minister?
Leveson got the measure of Rupert Murdoch: he exercised the “very greatest power...without having to ask.” But when it came to the Cameron-Brooks’ relationship – and her text that to the Prime Minister that “professionally we’re definitely in this together” – the judge did not think to ask the News International’s chief executive how this relationship might have worked out in practice.
If he had taken an interest in “spin” he might have asked Brooks or Cameron about the launch of the Sun’s first salvo in support of the coalition government’s determination to cut spending on social security benefits by £1.5 billion by curbing cheating of the system – a critical policy commitment of the new administration.
Within weeks of taking office the Prime Minister endorsed – with a signed article – the launch of the Sun’s hotline (12.8.2010) for readers to report and expose benefit scroungers – a campaign which the paper has continued to pursue to great effect.
If Leveson had tried to understand the mechanics of campaigning journalism and press lobbying, he would have been forewarned when the proprietors launched their pre-emptive strike to undermine his own recommendations.
Did the judge really think that the Free Press Network – representing the newspaper owners – had not been colluding with sympathetic Conservative politicians?
The plaintive line in his report – ruefully accepting that the press had already been using their “considerable megaphone” to influence the government – only served to highlight the troubling contradictions in his report.
While the judge is to be applauded for recommending that the quarterly declaration of ministers’ meetings with “proprietors, editors and senior executives” should be expanded to include political special advisers, lobbyists and the official Opposition, there is hardly likely to be the greater transparency he calls for unless that includes the flow of information from the state to the public.
A record of personal and private meetings and an indication of the “frequency or density of contact by phone call, text and e-mail” are hardly likely to throw any light on the hidden trade in the deliberate leaking of government announcements or the supply of exclusive stories or privileged access.
Leveson revealed an awareness of what might be happening behind the scenes; he reflected on the “considerable importance” which Alastair Campbell had attached to news management in Tony Blair’s government.
But another missed opportunity: the judge failed to understand the significance – and success – of New Labour spin and the extent to which the media routines of the Blair government have become entrenched in Whitehall and have been replicated by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
Illustrations: The Times (30.11.2012), The Guardian (30.11.2012)