IN many ways the Leveson report is an impressive piece of work; it is a detailed, political and expedient response to an absurdly amorphous and poorly considered brief.
But at its heart are two showstopping misjudgements: two ignored elephants in the newsroom.
The first involves the internet which engages the attention of m’lud for all of one page out of 2,000; a similar investment of attention must surely have been paid to the iceberg by that metaphorical rearranger of deckchairs on the Titanic.
Lord Justice Leveson deems the internet “a moral vacuum” with the same ignorant dismissiveness displayed by the (probably mythical) 1960s English judge who queried: “Who are the Beatles?” and by the (actual) 1960s prosecutor of Lady Chatterley’s Lover who asked the jury if they would be happy for their servants to read it.
Moral vacuum or not, the internet is the globe’s information eco-chamber; in the UK, the US and most other parts of the developed world it is responsible for the irreversibly accelerating demise of print newspapers and, more importantly, for the growing irrelevance of the compendial model of delivering textual news and views to mass audiences; as technological connectivity improves, the rest of the planet will very quickly follow this pathway and dispense with print products.
Leveson proposes that “all significant news publishers” be part of a new regulatory body; implicitly, if nor explicitly, he appears to exclude internet news and views sites like the UK edition of the Huffington Post or Paul (Guido Fawkes) Staines’ excellent and irrefutably significant order-order
And yet the troubled Independent (circulation 80,001 and diving) by implication is a membership “must”.
This says far more about Leveson, his habits and his attitudes, than it does about the real world: as far as he is concerned if it is not in print it doesn’t count; he cannot see the wood for the dead trees.
He’s wrong now, and in five years he will be even more wrong: this e-lephant is here to stay.
The second Leveson showstopper involves the very nature of journalistic inquiry and presentation.
Journalism operates in society’s borderlands – it is liminal; that is to say it can only fulfil its function if it can move between structures, without being in thrall to any of them (including media moguls). For example, journalists must find operational space within which to conduct off-the-record conversations with contacts be they police officers or politicians; good hacks have always plied their trade by being less than straightforward.
Leveson’s search for the holy grail of news objectivity was doomed from the get-go; at the risk of mixing my mythologies his notion of stories uncontaminated by human proclivity is, and always was, a chimera; the publication of news is always, to one extent or another, “loaded” and provocative: that is how textual journalism works…that is how it injects energy and productive spirit into the societal project. By its very nature news journalism is a trickster.
There will always be times that journalism tests and even breaks the law: whether to expose corrupt MPs by buying stolen data or to unveil royal hypocricy by procuring a transcript of an adulterous phone conversation.
Britain , like any robust and confident society, already has criminal laws in place by which all transgressors – journalists, police or politicians – can be brought to book effectively and transparently if those laws are applied with vigour and probity. Only the law can deal with such transgressions and any invocation of “public interest” defence or mitigation invariably plunges the process into that quicksand of moral relativity so beloved of expensive lawyers.
Thanks to the internet the public now has many more ways of expressing its approval of, or disgust at, journalistic methods: ways of healthily manifesting the “wisdom of the crowd”.
If Leveson thinks that process can only be vacuous and immoral then he really doesn’t get it.