Media headhunter’s view on Leveson and press regulation

Like most people who will comment upon it – or certainly have in the last few hours – I have not read the Leveson report in full. There are, after all, 2000 pages, and media headhunters‘ lot is a busy one (I’ve been in a lot of meetings today). But I have read enough and seen enough to give an accurate and definitive summary (I hope). Here it is:

1) Everything that is bad is the media’s fault. With the single exception of John Yates of the Yard, our police force is above condemnation. A great relief for all those who believed recent coverage of police manipulation of evidence in the case of Hillsborough, for example.

2) Everything that is bad is the media’s fault (part 2). Politicians are all lovely, and are only serving the public interest. A great relief for all those who believed recent coverage of the MP’s expenses scandal, for example.

3) The press is evil, and cannot properly monitor itself. There must be an independent regulator backed by legislation. A great relief for those who believed recent coverage that an Ofcom-regulated media organisation spiked one story about a paedophile, and then published a completely false story accusing another innocent public figure. For example.

Of course, Leveson was not set up as an enquiry into the police service or the political class; but they do seem to have been spared the rod by the judge. And while he acknowledges that the media has “served the country ‘very well for the vast majority of the time’“, it does not soften the overwhelming impression that ‘the press’ is a force of evil. To some extent, of course, the PCC has done absolutely nothing to help the industry. Too often they turned a blind eye, leaving the impression that they did not take complaints seriously – even when the press had behaved appallingly. The feeling that the PCC was ‘looking after its own’ was confirmed when it frowned upon the Guardian for persisting with its stories of phone-tapping at News of the World. And this is the crucial point. Despite being censured by the hopeless PCC, the Guardian persisted. Even while police and politicians turned a blind eye and continued to court the very people who now stand trial.

Reporting the real news is not easy. Each of the above stories – Hillsborough, MPs expenses, and the spiking of the Savile story – illustrates that, in startlingly different ways.

In order to pursue its phone-hacking story, The Guardian was condemned by other media, police, the judiciary, politicians, and the PCC. It was proved to be right. Leveson only happened because the newspaper refused to lie down, despite pressure. It is a perverse result of the Guardian’s investigation that Leveson is recommending that future press regulatory body must have the teeth of law behind it.

Image of newspapers

Image of newspapers courtesy of Birdfarm (Flickr)

The fundamental question that must be asked of any future legislation is this: would such an investigation ever be allowed to be pursued again – particularly after a paper has been censured by its governing body? Once regulation is statutory, that must be open to doubt. And that cannot be a good thing.