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The Leveson Inquiry: what have we learned?

Andy Coulson, former News of the World editor and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s former Director of Communications, leaving the Leveson Inquiry. EPA/Karel Prinsloo

Andy Coulson, Former News of the World editor and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s previous Director of Communications, was arrested and charged with perjury last night in relation to evidence he gave in a Glasgow court in 2010.

Coulson’s arrest is the latest scalp claimed by ongoing investigations into phone hacking by Scotland Yard, and revelations heard at the Leveson Inquiry into the culture of the British press.

Just under a year ago, in July 2011, The Guardian reported that a private detective called Glenn Mulcaire had been hacking teenager Milly Dowler’s phone and had been deleting messages on the phone’s voicemail in order to create space for new messages which he could then pass on to the news editors at the News of the World. This was thought to have caused her parents to have hope that she was still alive.

That story triggered a firestorm of revulsion and protest. It forced the creation of the Leveson Inquiry, closed the News of the World, damaged the government’s credibility, forced the abandonment of News Corp’s bid for the remaining slice of BSkyB they didn’t already own, led to the resignation of the Prime Minister’s press spokesman, hung out a great deal of the news media’s dirty linen and proved – all in all - to be a cathartic moment in British public life.

Lifting the lid

Since it later turned out that the allegation Mulcaire deleted voicemail messages shouldn’t have been reported as fact – the police have admitted they just don’t know – a few voices have been heard saying that the Leveson Inquiry is an expensive waste of time.

I think it’s been a good use of public money for public education and I think the issues it has exposed to the light would have caused a scandal sooner or later.

The inquiry has lifted the lid on media behaviour that most people don’t know about and are shocked, puzzled and appalled to hear about, and marked the end of one era of news media history. In future years, historians will mine the vast mound of evidence accumulated by Leveson because of the exceptionally rich picture it paints of a once-powerful print media brought low both by corrupted behaviour and its inability to adjust to new realities.

Shining a light

Leveson has also shone a bright light on some very cosy and unsavoury relationships between editors, publishers, policemen and politicians.

American media pundits are fond of saying that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. When it is the mainstream media being disinfected in this way, oddly enough you don’t hear journalists saying that.

But one of these pundits, Michael Wolff, wrote just before Rupert Murdoch’s appearance at Leveson that the inquiry had “revealed no practices that any sentient person has not known existed”.

This is an absolutely classic example of the distorting spectacles people wear inside the media bubble.

What do we know?

So what has the public learned that Michael Wolff thinks every sentient person already knew?

  1. That a lot of popular journalism “scoops” were basically cheating. A proportion of stories in some papers were got by hacking voicemails or emails and by bribing public officials.

  2. The scandal was revealed by stubborn journalism which wasn’t just difficult but required stamina and nerve. A regulated broadcaster couldn’t have done it, just ask the BBC chairman.

  3. News International papers had essentially infiltrated the Metropolitan Police. Resting hacks would work as PRs or consultants for the police; ex-coppers would write columns.

  4. Politicians have been all too keen to give Rupert Murdoch what he wanted. Their reasons varied: they were scared of him and some of his papers, they wanted good coverage, his businesses created jobs, they agreed with his outlook. They all convinced themselves he was an irresistible force. That was how he collected, over quite a long time, more than a third of British newspaper circulation.

  5. There is very little penalty for invading peoples’ privacy – and the only penalties there are have come in the last decade.

  6. Not all the people who have their privacy invaded are celebrities. The inquiry has revealed an ingrained culture of casual cruelty by reporters towards families such as the McCanns and the Dowlers.

  7. Self-regulation of big, national papers doesn’t work. Britain is – as you know in Australia – not the only country to have been pondering this issue.

  8. What happened at the News of the World and The Sun had at least something to do with a feeling (illusory as it turned out) of invulnerability. The root of that was the proportion of the market owned by one company.

What next?

So many different things have become mixed up here. The inquiry has been a receptacle for every complaint and resentment which has accumulated in the past 20 years – some that have nothing to do with the scandals that snuffed out the News of the World. The airing of these grievances is one of the public services such an inquiry does before it even reports and recommends.

If I predict what I think will happen when Leveson publishes his recommendations this autumn, it is likely that he will propose a media regulation system with a sharper set of teeth. It’s a mug’s game trying to infer a judge’s thinking from the questions he asks witnesses, but I detect some signals.

First, it’s likely Leveson will recommend a new regulation system that would be independent of government, but established in law so as to ensure that publishers of a certain size can’t drop out.

Second, something has to be done about paparazzi and harassment, preferably by this new regulator.

Finally, the regulator should if possible provide incentives for rules of conduct in newsrooms.

If this is what Leveson recommends it will be controversial.

But in redefining Britain’s media landscape, there needs to be a mix of accountability before the law, defence of public interest reporting and incentives for better behaviour. There are echoes of these ideas in proposals aired in Australia.

This is an edited version of a speech given at the University of Technology, Sydney and Monash University.

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