11 June 2012
The Leveson Inquiry – investigating the culture, practices and ethics of the Press in the UK – resumes this week. It’s reported that Ministers will be grilled about their links with Britain’s press barons as the inquiry enters its most sensitive political phase. This is unlikely to happen. The government decides the inquiry’s terms of reference, appoints its members and signs-off on the final report. Look forward to theatre instead.
The inquiry was prompted by revelations that the News of the World, a tabloid in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation stable, was phone hacking on an industrial scale mining for sleaze, secrets and sensation to sell. There were suspicions as early as 2005 that Prince William’s phone had been tapped. The paper’s Royal correspondent and a private investigator were arrested in 2006 and jailed in 2007. Editor Andy Coulson, apologised for the behavior of a single rogue reporter and resigned. He emerged six months later as the media advisor to David Cameron.
In July 2009 the Guardian reported News Corporation paid more than a million pounds to settle legal cases that would have exposed other phone hacking journalists. It claimed there were thousands more victims, including celebrities, politicians and ordinary people. News Corporation denied the allegations. Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, John Yates did not think there was any need for further investigation. The Press Complaints Commission in a second report on phone hacking gave the all clear again. It said the Guardian stories did not quite live up to their dramatic billing.
But they did. Apart from celebrities a rapidly increasing list of victims included the family of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, relatives of people killed in the 2005 London bombings and Iraq war widows. News of the World journalists and News Corporation executives were arrested, notably red-haired Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of News International and Rupert Murdoch’s right-hand woman.
A parliamentary select committee re-opened its investigations summoning Rupert Murdoch, and son James, to answer questions. Rupert was accosted by a foam-pie, the News of the World was closed and News Corporation withdrew its bid to substantially increase its stake in the broadcaster BSkyB. Along the way, some of the more intimate details of the relationship between Murdoch’s empire and politicians emerged.
In January 2011, the Metropolitan Police launched a new investigation, Operation Weeting, into phone hacking along with parallel probes into payments to police officers (Operation Elveden) and the interception of e-mails (Operation Tuleta).
In July last year, David Cameron announced the Leveson Inquiry. The first part focuses on the relationship of the press with the public, the police and politicians. Formal hearings will be completed by the end of July. Later – and after various prosecutions are completed – the inquiry will investigate the scale of the hacking that took place and the response from police and politicians. It’s website says it will ‘make recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance consistent with maintaining freedom of the press and ensuring the highest ethical and professional standards.
Lord Justice Leveson set the tone when he opened the hearings on 14 November 2011, saying: “The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?” Since then the inquiry has provided an elevated option to the usual fare on daytime TV. The nation has watched celebrities – and lesser mortals – give evidence of their abuse at the hands of the press. Britain’s youngest newspaper proprietor, Russian oligarch Egveny Lebedev – owner of the Evening Standard and the Independent titles – warned of the peril of regulation. He later tweeted “Forgot to tell#Leveson that it’s unreasonable to expect individuals to spend millions of pounds on newspapers and not have access to politicians”.
This week that intimacy comes under scrutiny. There may be titillating detail. Rupert Murdoch’s influence in opening the doors of Downing Street to Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and most recently David Cameron has won him the title of ‘kingmaker’. In 1995, Blair addressed senior News Corporation executives at the luxury Hayman Island resort in Queensland, reassuring them that “the battle between market and public sector is over”. Two years later, Murdoch officially endorsed Blair and “New Labour” in his daily tabloid ‘The Sun’ paving the way for electoral victory.
In 2011, Blair became godfather to Murdoch’s youngest child. Evidence given by the Murdochs has strongly suggested a connection between News Corporation’s bid to take over the whole of BSkyB and its support for David Cameron and Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party. In the circumstances, criticism that Leveson’s real task is to restore establishment credibility comes easy.
Meanwhile over on the ‘Spiked’ website they’ve launched the ‘Counter Leveson Inquiry’ to crusade against a show trial of the tabloids. ‘Why? Not because we hold a candle for tabloid newspapers, but because we carry a torch for press freedom, because we believe that Milton’s rallying cry is as fitting today as it was in 1644: ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.’
Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail and cheerleader for the tabloid press, said in a Leveson seminar, ‘Indeed, I would argue that Britain’s commercially viable free press – because it is in hock to nobody – is the only really free media in this country. Over regulate that press and you put democracy itself in peril.’ For support he cited Lord Woolf’s judgment on a story exposing a footballer’s close encounter with a lap dancer. “The courts must not ignore the fact that if newspapers do not publish information which the public are interested in, then there will be fewer newspapers published, which will not be in the public interest.”
Through all the chatter there is an assumption that runs deep; that the issue is primarily about a breach of ethics and standards by political opportunists and self-serving hacks. It’s a view that is all the more dangerous because it is held by decent people. By way of example, in October 2009 Gillian Slovo was interviewed on Radio 4 about her book, ‘Red Dust’. In passing she was asked why she had decided to return to the UK after a year in South Africa. She said, ‘But another thing, I’m sorry to say was the newspapers. I am brought up in a country that has fantastic news and fantastic newspapers and fantastic cultural events and reviews and I find it quite difficult, the newpapers were quite thin’.
With tabloid and broadsheet alike preparing the UK public for an attack on Syria, as they did for Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, one can only hope South Africa’s thin papers do a better job of telling the truth than manufacturing consent.