Over a year ago, I asked on this site whether the left should concern itself with the Leveson Inquiry and said that the evidence, so far, was mixed. Now that the report is finally out, my conclusion is that the evidence is even more mixed but that we should certainly still care.
The Leveson Report is, as they say, a bundle of contradictions. It excoriates the behaviour of substantial sections of the press – that they have ‘wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people’ and demonstrated a ‘recklessness in prioritizing sensational stories’ – and then proposes a rather gentle set of recommendations: the creation of an independent self-regulatory body which would be overseen by a body with statutory footing and which would enable third-party complaints, a cheap arbitration processand investigations and sanctions where necessary. Leveson also recommends a legal requirement to protect press freedom, the inclusion of a conscience clause in journalists’ contracts and clear public interest justifications to safeguard investigative journalism. The fact that proprietors and editors, with the express support of Downing Street, are saying that they will set up such a system but without any underpinning in law – the one firm principle on which Leveson based his recommendations – , is a perfect example of the existence of unaccountable press power that was at the heart of the inquiry (and government’s fear of standing up to it).
Think back over the last year. The Inquiry heard evidence that the Sun had set up a ‘network of corrupted officials’ and created a ‘culture of illegal payments’ in the police and other public services. It uncovered the existence of intensive corporate lobbying – there were 1,056 texts, 191 phone calls and 158 emails between News Corp and the Culture Department during the former’s attempted takeover of BSkyB – and an unhealthy intimacy between senior politicians and media executives. David Cameron held 1,404 meetings with industry figures while in opposition, hobnobbed with Rupert Murdoch on the Greek island of Santorini in order to ‘build a relationship’ with him and then rode a horse belonging to former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks that had been loaned to her by the Metropolitan Police. Yet Leveson concludes in the executive summary of the report that, while there is certainly a perception of an unhealthy relationship between police, politicians and senior press executives, ‘I have seen no basis for challenging at any stage the integrity of the police’. He goes on to argue that ‘there is no credible evidence of actual bias on the part of [Jeremy] Hunt [the former culture secretary who oversaw the News Corp/BSkyB merger]’. His recommendations are for more ‘transparency’, more disclosures by politicians about their dealings with the press and the replacement of ‘off the record’ briefings with ‘non-reportable’ ones.
Such caution partly bears out the criticisms of those like Media Lens who have argued that the Leveson Inquiry is ‘yet another instance of established power investigating itself.’ Certainly we shouldn’t be surprised by the underwhelming nature of the recommendations taken as a whole. Leveson does not represent a threat to corporate power itself, but rather a challenge to its most visibly unethical manifestations. Indeed nowhere is the gap between the abuses of power uncovered during the inquiry and the remedies suggested by Lord Justice Leveson greater than in relation to the problem of concentrated media ownership. While some people have argued that the whole Leveson process was fundamentally flawed by its marginalisation of the internet – with the Sun describing this as the ‘elephant in the room’ – in my view the failure to confront the domination of our media by huge, for-profit groups able to mobilise their power in pursuit of readers, influence and favourable agendas, is the central omission.
It is not that Leveson ignores the issue of ownership altogether. Actually, there is a huge amount of discussion about it in the report, including an overview of the main news organisations , an evaluation of both NI’s purchase of The Times and Sunday Times in 1981 and News Corp’s proposed takeover of BSkyB in 2010/11, a consideration of the relationship between politicians and powerful news groups and an entire chapter on plurality and media ownership. The problem is the gulf between the problem as laid out and the solutions proposed.
Leveson suggests that triggers for intervention should be ‘considerably lower’ than those used for ordinary competition concerns and that the scope of the public interest test might be extended, but only within competition law. He further argues that, following Ofcom’s recommendations, plurality issues should be kept ‘under review’ (a situation not dissimilar to the deregulatory media system in the USA where there are ownership reviews every four years). However, he gives no concrete proposals about how best to tackle the fact that three news organisations in the UK control 75% of national daily circulation and that the build-up of this kind of press power – and there is little evidence thus far that the most popular online news is significantly more open to a plurality of voices – is bound to distort both media and politics in this country. For many people, it was the arrogance that comes with this kind of power that gave rise to phone hacking in the first place. Furthermore, the idea that existing competition rules can address this effectively is wishful thinking when you consider that no major newspaper acquisition has been refused in the last 46 years.
Leveson also recommends that discretionary power remain with the Secretary of State in respect of decisions over media mergers even though this is at odds with evidence presented to the Inquiry which demonstrated the pervasive nature and influence of industry lobbying. This was clear not simply in relation to Jeremy Hunt’s approval of News Corp’s bid to buy out BSkyB prior to the unfolding of the phone hacking scandal, but also to Margaret Thatcher’s permission for News International to buy up The Times and Sunday Times in 1981 without a proper investigation. Evidence of a tacit ‘deal’ between political leaders and media industry lobbyists is unlikely to be written down on paper – indeed Leveson actually notes that ‘[n]ot surprisingly, the contemporary documents do not evidence any form of express “deal”’ between Thatcher and Murdoch – but this does not mean that deals are not done.
That is why we need clear ownership thresholds. It needs to be much harder for media groups to evade the law through persistent lobbying and less easy for politicians to fall prey to regulatory capture. The Media Reform Coalition, in which I am involved, formally proposed to the Leveson Inquiry a 15% benchmark that would trigger regulatory intervention in the form of specific public interest obligations ensuring editorial autonomy. This would be coupled with a 20% overall limit in the key sub-markets of national print, television, radio and online. We argue this on the basis that five owners – within or across media markets – is the minimum basis for media plurality. Of course we want journalistic independence and ethical behaviour to apply to all news organisations, whatever their size, but one of the things that the Leveson Report does well is to emphasise that there needs to be a special responsibility placed on the largest, and most powerful, companies.
It’s worth noting that tackling media concentration is a popular issue with the public. Nearly three quarters of those polled in an IPPR survey in May 2012 supported limits on media ownership. If we are ever to produce a press system that is genuinely independent, we need to be pressing not just for the perfect regulatory model that will stimulate ethical journalism, as important as this is, but also for a range of remedies, including ownership caps and public interest obligations, to break up the media power that is distorting contemporary political life.
In conclusion, it is true that the Leveson Inquiry has involved the establishment holding a mirror up to itself. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore or dismiss it, simply because it asks the wrong questions. It is very unlikely to deliver significant reform in the face of overwhelming attacks from proprietors and government, but it will be a fait accompli if we don’t involve ourselves in the campaign to make the press more accountable and the media more diverse. Furthermore, the inquiry can’t be insulated from the collapse in public confidence in major institutions like banks and Parliament itself and from wider pressures for social change. It would therefore be a real waste if the left which is often centrally involved in campaigns against corporate domination of public spaces failed to engage with the debates over media reform in the months to come – in phone-ins, blogs, letters pages as well as in union branches and social movements. We need to keep harping on about Cameron’s betrayal of the victims of phone hacking and his constant surrender to the power of a handful of unelected press barons. A public inquiry into the culture, practices and standards of the press is a strange battleground for the left, but then we rarely choose the terrain on which we fight.
Des Freedman is Reader in Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of The Politics of Media Policy, co-author of Misunderstanding the Internet and co-editor of several books including The Assault on Universities and Media and Terrorism: Global Perspectives. He is chair of the Media Reform Coalition and a National Committee member of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.