Monday, 26 November 2012

The Leveson Report is almost here

In two day's time, all will be revealed. Apparently Sir Brian Leveson - Lord Justice Leveson - has produced a monster of a report about Press Standards. It will certainly take some time to digest, although one can anticipate that passages will be lifted from it at once, and flaunted out of context by all sides affected by what the Report may say. Which includes the press chiefs and politicians of course, but ought to include all the rest of us. So I do hope the Report will be published in full on the Internet, and straight away, so that all can study it for themselves, and not have to rely on quick and dirty appraisals in the very papers who may be getting a hammering.

Me, I'll be relying on the BBC to give me the gist, but I'll be wanting to look closely at the bits that deal with the mocking harassment of fringe minorities (trans people, for instance) and form my own impressions of the Report's worth, rather than have anything spoonfed to me.

There is some evidence that the press has lately changed its approach and learned a little sensitivity. But this may be only temporary, and if the government proves unwilling to legislate, then the papers will surely revert to their old ways. I don't see how they can do otherwise if they want to keep selling. In a world where detailed genuine news and analysis is available 24/7 on your phone or tablet, free, courtesy of the Internet, the none-too-cheap newspapers must offer something extra to keep up circulation and generate revenue. That extra is going to be 'human-interest' or 'public-interest' stories full of sensational disclosure, and short on correct information. Stuff calculated to appeal to the prejudices and preconceptions of the hard-core tabloid-buying public.

But even if newspaper stories have recently changed their tone a bit, there is counter-evidence that all is not well, that the news media as a whole - TV, radio, the Internet, as well as the newspapers - is still capable of poor journalism, and cannot be left to function without effective legal sanctions in place. Consider, for instance, the damage done by BBC's Newsnight gaffe, followed by ITV's own blunder when Phillip Schofield ambushed David Cameron with that list of possible paedophiles, derived from rumours on the Internet. As a result of these actions, Lord McAlpine was smeared, and I dare say he is right in supposing that for the rest of his life his name will be connected with child abuse. He has agreed settlements of £185,000 from the BBC, and £125,000 from ITV, which are actually rather small sums for a reputation forever besmirched. His lawyer has also invited 'sensible and modest amounts' in settlement from those who used Twitter to spread the rumours about him.

I don't know how practical it will be to collect such guilt-money, but this is an interesting development. It shows that nobody should now expect to post scurrilous tweets on Twitter, or make abusive comments on Facebook, without at least the possibility of legal comeback. On the other hand, I believe this is no more than an extension of the existing law on libel, and it still means that only the well-off can afford to pursue an offender for redress. We really want a system that will prevent the media defaming anybody, or, if they do, then there must be a way for their victims to get full compensation and a front-page apology - without risking their home and life savings on court costs.

But at the end of the day, it comes back to the newspaper-buying public. If they didn't buy these tabloids, they would cease to be published. That the public still do, suggests that on the whole millions of rather traditional Britons like what they read. They are not objecting to mocking stories about vulnerable people, nor are they clamouring for new press laws. None of this has become an issue with the general public, and it's certainly not an election issue. Nobody has said they will boycott The Daily Mail or The Sun, if they go back to their old ways - unlike the many (clearly a different kind of person) who have said they will boycott buying things from Amazon, or having coffee in Starbucks, if they don't start paying more tax.

Newspaper chiefs know that millions love The Sun. They also know that modern governments have always hesitated about legislating against the media. So the real point of interest is, will this government have the courage to confound them?

What sort of legislation, anyway? I think we deserve, at the least, a government-sponsored Regulator (call it Ofmed?) who can work to statutorially-defined standards, and will possess legal powers to impose vast fines on all parts of the media, paying just compensation from those fines to the victims of the offences committed. What we actually get is anyone's guess though.

1 comment:

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Lucy Melford