Lunch with Leveson: post-inquiry reflections of a former hack (Andy Bissell)

As lunch dates go, it was rather awkward. Sir Brian was tucking in when, mid-sandwich, he peered at me over his glasses. The small cheese triangle was temporarily spared consumption as Lord Justice Leveson digested my question.

We were sitting in a well-appointed boardroom above a state-of-the-art newsroom in Southampton and I had posed the babies and bathwater conundrum: How was he going to preserve the best of British journalism while banishing the excesses of the worst? If Sir Brian knew the answer, he wasn’t going to share it. He chose instead to commend the work of the regional media and acknowledge the particularly close relationship local newspapers enjoyed with their readers. The possibility of a new press law, the clammy hands question, similarly hung heavy over lunch. He said somewhat cryptically that the solution had to work for us and it was politely left at that.

It was a round-table gathering of nervous smiles and furtive glances. And through it all Sir Brian kept his cards close to his chest. His inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press was about to begin and a meet-and-greet with the main players was designed to bring him up to speed with the machinations of an industry he knew little about. The fact his Inquiry Tour included dates at the Daily Mail’s west London offices and the Daily Mirror’s Canary Wharf HQ seemed to magnify the enormity of the task confronting him. A public sickened by phone-hacking may have demanded blood on the walls but different papers played by different rules.

As he descended the Daily Echo’s spiral staircase, my impression was of a thoroughly likeable man comfortable with the view that universal appeasement was as unattainable as it was nonsensical. Equally, we knew maintaining the status quo was a Leveson non-starter. Regional newspapers headed for the bunker; it was time to prepare for collateral damage.

Later that day I reflected on the meeting with a colleague. We both knew Sir Brian would be trumped if he revealed a regulatory hand containing statutory underpinning. He presumably knew that too. True, Mssrs Clegg and Miliband might be enthusiastic but David Cameron surely wouldn’t accept it; and editors would be frothing like rabid dogs. Conversely, anything less than statute would, by my simple reckoning, appear unacceptably lame to the baying public. An impasse seemed inevitable.

So it proved.

The Prime Minister soon spotted Sir Brian’s reference to legislation on page 1,772 of his inquiry report, duly spluttered about a Rubicon being crossed and instead supported a cross-party Leveson-Lite based on a Royal Charter. The Daily Mail snarled a predictable response: “It is a charter written by politicians (over pizza at 2am, in a grubby stitch up with the anti-press lobby group Hacked Off), imposed by politicians and under the ultimate control of politicians” (26 October 2013). Most of the press agreed and the industry countered with an alternative charter that blocked perceived potential for political meddling in the future.

Stalemate became stand-off this week when the Privy Council rubber-stamped the cross-party charter and the press confirmed its intention to ignore it. We are left with “a recognition body that nobody recognises” and “a system of voluntary regulation without volunteers,” said The Times (31 October 2013) while the Daily Telegraph warned of the dark political arts the cross-party charter could unleash: “If Parliament can find the numbers to impose a royal charter upon the industry, it can also find the numbers necessary to censor it” (31 October 2013). “We will continue to fight” was the concluding rallying cry.

However finding a workable solution incorporating fresh incentives and new caveats appears to be in everyone’s ultimate interests. Politicians will not want to appear powerless to rein in newspapers that, in Leveson’s view, “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”. Equally the press, caught in a maelstrom of public antagonism, would rather avoid accusations of arrogant self-interest and two-fingered defiance. In truth both sides have a problem if the post-Leveson world feels no warmer than the cold, callous one he laid bare.

Hence the intimacy depicted in Leveson’s colossal tome is unlikely to become a lingering, long-term split. This, remember, is the political apparatus that became “too close” to the press and spent “a disproportionate amount of time, attention and resource” on the relationship, according to Leveson’s inquiry report. He further observed how the press were “powerful lobbyists in their own right” and a body that “traded power and influence” with politicians. Power games shaped by the rules of deep, symbiotic relationships necessitate the desire for mutually acceptable outcomes.

In the meantime Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has already endorsed the stop-gap measure. Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s anticipated regulation roadblock, he saw no problem with the two rival charters operating simultaneously. He told the BBC Sunday Politics Show on 20 October: “We’ve got two sets. If the press want to have an additional protection that the Royal Charter operates, then they can move into the system. But if they want to continue independently, that’s perfectly acceptable.”

A win-win situation? Not quite. Yes, the press can happily ignore the cross-party charter leaving the watchdog endorsed by its recognition panel with no newspapers to regulate. And yes the press can push on with its own watchdog, hailed by The Times as “a landmark in the history of British journalism” (11 July, 2013). But what does the public make of it?

Disillusionment with elected representatives and concern over press excess has eroded trust. Following the appalling Milly Dowler revelations, friends casually asked how often I hacked phones. Worse, they expressed surprise at my hurt denial. All print journalists were tainted and I felt the readers slip further away. It was comforting that Leveson’s report reserved praise for the regional press, describing its contribution to community life as “truly without parallel”. But I wasn’t particularly confident that our readers were rushing out to buy Sir Brian’s £250 four-volume box set.

The inquiry had also highlighted an apparent cosiness enjoyed between David Cameron and News International. The PM was quick to reassure the House of Commons that Sir Brian had rejected allegations of a deal struck between his party and the Murdoch empire. Yet false conclusions are not merely reached; they are often retained.

Fewer are keeping the faith, evidenced by polling day apathy and haemorrhaging of newspaper sales. It was sobering to read Steve Hewlett’s interpretation of two recent polls gauging public attitudes to press regulation (Guardian Mediablog, 20 October 2013). Amid the contradictory information contained in the Media Standards Trust and Sun surveys, he detected some consensus. He observed most seemed to want a free press, self-regulated independently in a way that would stop both past abuses and political interference. Hewlett concluded: “If you use ‘independent’ about the regulatory system they like it; if you mention politicians or journalists, they don’t.”

How the press and politicians will reconcile their differences and frame a regulatory system that washes with the public is unclear. The press may simply hope time clouds memory and dilutes interest; that one Royal Charter becomes much like another; and that the effective working of their new regulation system will diffuse the political will to somehow enforce their alternative charter.

Both press and parliament are involved in a high-risk power game but not exclusively with each other. Losing the public is what’s ultimately at stake. And public dismay has already dissipated to something more dangerous: indifference.

During lunch in Southampton I asked Sir Brian to predict the future of press regulation but the cards remained firmly clutched to his chest.

He was, after all, just the dealer.

Now he’s waiting for the end game with the rest of us.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Andy Bissell is Lecturer in News Journalism at Bournemouth University. He was a newspaper journalist for 25 years, working most recently at the Daily Echo in Southampton where he was Assistant Editor and Features Editor.[/author_info] [/author]

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