BA Multimedia Journalism’s visitor-speaking programme is underway for final-year students, after a lively debate took place on Monday focusing on the Leveson Report.
The lecture, “The Leveson Report: tomorrow’s fish and chip paper?”, featured blogger Fleet Street Fox, freelance writer Adam Lee-Potter, and The Guardian’s crime correspondent, Sandra Laville, as speakers.
The programme is part of final-year students Professional Perspectives unit, which aims to help prepare students further for the working world.
The three journalists debated among themselves for the first part of the lecture, before opening up the floor to any questions from students.
Sandra questioned how the British press had found itself to be in this situation, asking: did we bring it upon ourselves?
BA Multimedia Journalism’s practitioner-in-residence said a series of low points had been reached within the past two decades, including sections of the press’ treatment of Madeline McCann’s parents, following her disappearance.
A number of unsubstantiated claims were published in the British press, taken from the Portuguese media.
It was an example of “lazy journalism”, according to Sandra, who was called as a witness and spoke at the Leveson Inquiry.
Fleet Street Fox, however, added that the majority of newspapers did work hard to clear Kate McCann’s name, after she had been accused of killing her daughter Madeline.
“Most papers bent over backwards to make it plain ‘McCann’s being accused of killing her own child’ was a travesty.”
All panelists agreed the hacking of Millie Dowler’s phone propelled phone-hacking into the public consciousness, which crossed a Rubicon, according to Sandra.
She said, “Before then, it was considered The Guardian’s little agenda and it was about celebrities having their phones hacked.”
It was an example of “how reporters and journalists became divorced from the reality of what they do and how it affects people, [and] how there’s always a human being at the end of the story.”
Fleet Street Fox said, “It’s hard to ask publicly when Sally Dowler was giving her evidence – that seeing as Millie’s voicemail would have been deleted anyway automatically by a time limit – she would have had that terrible moment of thinking her daughter was alive whether the News of the World had hacked her phone or not.”
The Metropolitan Police later revealed the News of the World was probably not responsible for the deleted voicemails that gave hope to Dowler’s family she was still alive.
Fleet Street Fox added the practice of a crime reporter taking a DI for a pint has “never corrupted a single, sensible soul.”
If this were to stop, as feared, this could put a stop to low-level leaks, preventing scandals, such as phone-hacking, from ever reaching the news stands.
Much is made of reporters having to have thick-skin to be successful, but this is not an excuse to be void of all feeling and emotion, particularly when speaking to the parent of a dead child.
“If you don’t walk away from that encounter with some emotion and some feeling about that, then it’s time to give up doing that job,” said Sandra.
Adam agreed. “Once you lose your humanity as a journalist, you should definitely quit.”
Sandra felt Leveson could only end in tears, adding, “[It's] basically an over-reaction, an over-formalisation, and an over-regulation of human relationships.”
All three panelists shared the belief that the final report’s recommendations threaten the principle of freedom of the press, particularly if these recommendations are to be backed up by law.
“There’s no Bill that’s ever been passed by our politicians in Parliament that has not been tinkered with later.
“It’s the law that may mutate into at a later date that’s the big problem, and the reason I’m worried.”
Sandra said these proposed changes will only serve to make her job harder, placing power into the hands of already powerful people.
“I personally am totally against statutory regulation, but I do think we have questions to answer as to how we got here in the first place.
“I think the tabloid press has to accept they have made mistakes – serious errors of judgment – if we can move on.”
Adam countered Sandra’s argument, saying that the broadsheets should also accept the mistakes they’ve made.
The course’s former practitioner-in-residence, and Sandra’s predecessor, said he wasn’t going to whitewash any of the malpractice that undeniably went on.
“I think, probably, like most of us here, I had huge hopes for the Leveson Inquiry. But to my mind it’s proven to be the most expensive round of naval-gazing in the history of semantics.”
Fleet Street Fox shared similar sentiments.
“There is no call for journalists to have regular law refreshers in Leveson, foolish as there are new laws written every day. There is no definition of what the public interested actually is.
“There is no explanation as to why 30,000 print journalists in this country need regulating, when there’s only a couple dozen facing charge.”
The Report’s main recommendation was for an independent body to replace the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), after proving to be “completely toothless,” according to Adam.
In his opinion, the Inquiry boiled down to one topic: regulation.
“That seems to be a lot of money [spent] to try and nail that question. I don’t think Leveson has achieved that aim.”
Lord Leveson recommended an independent body should govern newspapers, which in itself would be put in place by statutory underpinning.
“Now, that is not the same as statutory regulation, but that is one step closer to statutory regulation, which I’m sure no journalist would want.”
Adam felt the Inquiry and subsequent report largely debated how much wriggle room journalists are going to be allowed.
“My big problem with wriggle room is that, historically, wriggle room has benefited proprietors and editors. It’s benefited the organ grinder rather than the monkeys.”
He said he had worked alongside a number of people, accused of malpractice, who are fundamentally decent people and journalists who at worst have been misled.
“I don’t see how journalism and society has been benefited by turning on these journalists, when actually as I said, it’s the organ grinder to my mind who should be in the crossfire.”
Adam also felt the general public didn’t have a proper understanding of what the Inquiry has achieved, let alone where money had been spent, and their opinion of the profession hadn’t changed.
“They distrusted us before, they distrust us now.
“It’s the likes of you that can save newspapers. It’s not the three of us here. It’s the people starting out in this business. What I think we need is far more than policing at the end; we need rigour at the beginning.”
Adam concluded there is a need to be cautious from all parties concerned; to work out what is wanted.
“If this is to bring newspapers increasingly to their knees, then we’re going in the right way round, and I think that would be a great shame.”
Fleet Street Fox said newsrooms, initially, breathed a sigh of relief as Lord Leveson revealed his main findings.
However, whilst reading through the report, a different picture had been painted. Fleet Street Fox joked that half of the evidence was so dated, it should have been in Latin.
“It created an image of a trade, which although I’ve been in for 18 years, I couldn’t recognise, even if I squinted and turned it upside down.”
Both Sandra and Fleet Street Fox shared concerns over proposed changes to the Data Protection Act, which would apply to all information gathered by newspapers.
“That information isn’t held by newspapers. It’s held by the individual journalist in their contact book. It’s unworkable.”
Lord Leveson’s call for a “conscience clause” is something Fleet Street Fox found reasonable, giving reporters the right to refuse a news desk instruction, if they feel it is unethical.
Both Fleet Street Fox and Adam, however, feel the practicality of putting this into place would be difficult.
Fleet Street Fox admitted even the current laws are being seen as something to navigate and get around, meriting a metaphorical badge of honour for some, if successful.
“There is only one way to overcome that, and that is for the law to start working for the press, rather than against us.”
If there is to be statute for the press, Fleet Street Fox called for a cast-iron guarantee of press freedom, a definition of their responsibilities, and freedom from being corrupted by others and fear of favour.
“We want to see good useful change as much as everyone else does, but Leveson does not give us that.”