Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Investigative journalism – across both the press and broadcasting – will almost certainly suffer as a result of the Leveson Inquiry and the introduction of a new regulatory regime. Most speakers at the launch of a new book – After Leveson? The future of British Journalism – feared the worst.

Perhaps the clearest warning of the obstacles that would be placed in the way of investigative journalism came from Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at Channel Four Television, who gave a vivid description of the way “multi-billion pound organisations and evil regimes” used “tiers of incredibly expensive lawyers” to thwart Channel Four’s investigations.

She said that any new regulatory regime for the press would be scrutinised by lawyers to find new ways to frustrate and curb newspaper investigations.

Her concern was echoed by Mick Hume of the Free Speech Network and the investigative journalist Paul Lashmar. But Evan Harris, Associate Director of Hacked Off, the group campaigning for the introduction of the Leveson recommendations, disagreed and insisted that Leveson had not proposed any alterations to the existing regulatory code of the Press Complaints Commission.

The future prospects for investigative journalism dominated much of the debate at the Media Society event to launch After Leveson? (26.2.2013)

While all the post-Leveson skirmishing has been about newspaper editors trying to stitch up a deal with the government on press regulation, there is other unfinished business from the Leveson Inquiry which will require attention in the Prime Minister’s New Year in tray.

Although woefully inadequate, the judge did make a series of recommendations designed to strengthen the Ministerial Code and to ensure greater transparency in future about meetings between politicians and media owners, editors and senior executives.

In the wake of the outrage over the phone hacking scandal in July 2011, David Cameron did ask ministers publish a quarterly declaration of all such meetings – ‘regardless of the nature of the meeting.’

But the Prime Minister and his colleagues made a mockery of the need for greater transparency because except for identifying who, when and where they met the lists gave no hint of the purpose or the outcome of their deliberations. Cameron used the catch-all term ‘general discussion’ alongside eight of his entries for meetings with Rupert or James Murdoch and other News International executives.

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.

Tucked away in a personal archive from thirty years of Rupert Murdoch watching was a dusty file dated May 1991 which told the tale of an ill-fated bid to expose the Sun’s malpractices.  Perhaps it was no more than a mere footnote in the troubled history of Murdoch’s malign influence on British journalism but it was nonetheless a salutary reminder of the political power wielded by his newspapers.

As successive witnesses were questioned during the many months of the Leveson Inquiry, the judge and his legal counsel seemed to be working on the flawed narrative that it was Tony Blair who began the Labour Party’s overtures to win the support of the Murdoch press.

But the first tentative steps to establish a working relationship with the Sun began under Neil Kinnock’s leadership in the long lead up to the 1992 general election and, as I found to my cost, the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring of Kinnock’s inner circle would later become a template for Blair and ultimately for David Cameron. 

Such was the chilling effect of Murdoch’s influence that Kinnock’s advisers  had been making secret overtures long before polling day; their fear was so great that they were prepared to disregard the unethical and potentially illegal behaviour of the Sun if that was the only means of closing down damaging smear stories.

 Although I am sure it was against their better judgement, Kinnock’s aides were being pushed relentlessly towards trying to reach an accommodation with the Murdoch press, an acquiescence which would come to haunt their successors.

By allowing a newsroom culture to develop at the Sun and the News of the World which gave reporters the freedom to pay cash for unauthorised disclosures Rupert Murdoch opened the floodgates to the sale of dubious information to tabloid newspapers. 

More than any other group the Murdoch press was responsible for fostering an expectation on the part of the British public that money can be made from the trade in private data, personal records, unauthorised tip-offs and the like.

As the number of arrests has continued to mount during the summer – especially for the alleged bribery and corruption of police and public officials – Lord Justice Leveson has insisted that his inquiry into media ethics must be fully briefed before completing its report in the autumn.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers has been asked to provide a full update at a special hearing in September. If looked at solely on the basis of the number of arrests, the phone hacking investigation is now being rapidly overtaken by what the judge concedes are the two other “fast moving” inquiries which began once potentially incriminating evidence started being hand over to the Metropolitan Police by News International.