Media standards: the Leveson inquiry so far

By Charlotte Henry

The Levenson Inquiry starts off again today with the return of Kelvin Mackenzie and friends. While it might have lost its sprinkling of star dust post Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller, and Steve Coogan, the grittier evidence supplied by the less glamorous journalists and lawyers is, in many ways, more enlightening. It reveals issues that go far beyond the old News of the Worlds newsroom.

Nick Davies of the Guardian, who broke the story originally when he revealed PFA Chief Executive Gordon Taylor’s phone had been hacked, claimed:

“The most important point that needs to be made about the concept of public interest is that nobody knows what it means. I am saying that nobody knows where the boundary lines are.”

That’s is undoubtedly true, to a point, but the inquiry demonstrates that there seems to have been a deterioration in decency from pulp press hacks throughout the industry, as the desperate need for a story overtook everything else.

Indeed, this was the point made by former reporter Richard Peppiatt, who eventually decided what his boundary was, walking out of the Daily Star over what he considered their anti-muslim agenda. He described the corporate governance at his former employer as “laissez-faire at best,” and said that “ethical concerns were always subservient to financial ones. Circulation felt like the main moral arbiter”. At one point, this culture resulted in him getting an £150 bonus for a story he had entirely made up.

That was followed up by former News of the World reporter Paul McMullen declaring “privacy is for paedos”, and that the whole inquiry was just a bit of a giggle. You can take the boy out the tabloid…

Davies, Peppiat and others undoubtedly raise key points about how a modern media should operate, but Lord Justice Leveson must guard against his inquiry being hijacked by a leftist, anti-Murdoch agenda, or indeed giving the government too much of a stranglehold so that it ends up suppressing a free press. The inquiry should be about making sure that the media serves the public, not Guardianistas taking a vengeful swipe at a powerful media corporation that outsells them and whose politics they dislike.

If Lord Leveson fails in this task, the debate will inevitably become polarised between left and right, and progress on having a properly transparent, accountable, and open press will be stifled. Any illegality that is discovered must be dealt with by the legal system, not the moral majority, and any police corruption weeded out and dealt with in the same way.

Ironically the Guardian themselves have been highly embarrassed during the course of the Leveson Inquiry when it was revealed that their front page ‘Dowler Deletion false hope story’ was inaccurate, and although messages on Milly’s phone had been deleted, the police concluded that this was not done by someone working for the NOTW, and was probably done automatically.

This story was undoubtedly a game changer in the phone hacking saga, but no equal and prominent apology so beloved of Rusbridger and Co. appeared in the paper. Funny that.

It’s also fair to say that in recent days we have seen exactly why we mustn’t allow the tabloid baby to be thrown out with the phone hacking bathwater. The Daily Mail’s gutsy beyond belief ‘Murderers’ front page, and the campaign that followed, was never, would never have been, done by the more elitist and cautious broadsheet press, and had a huge effect in moving towards righting a grave injustice.

Which, frankly, rather leaves us where we started, with the Guardian acting as the moral arbiters of the country, the tabloids outselling them, celebrities and politicians liking the publicity from said tabloids, and then complaining when it no longer suits them. The whole thing stems from a problem of the old fashioned and outdated Fleet Street dead-tree model failing to update to the modern digital world, and having to sink lower and lower to maintain their fairly meagre sales (but I’ll leave that particular bug bear for another time).

This public inquiry was a political response, needed to quash public outcry, but I’ll wait and see if it improves the current media landscape.

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