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The big question: is the Leveson inquiry getting anywhere and is it worthwhile

HOMEPAGE NEWS REPORTS INDEX MEDIA NEWS JULY 2012
Original Source: MSN NEWS: 16 JULY 2012
16 July 2012 12:32 | By Zoe and Steve Vaughan
 

 The Leveson inquiry is finally approaching the halfway mark - or end of part one if you prefer. The evidence, which we've been hearing sinceNovember, has brought us some gems.

Sean Dempsey, PA Wire

There were genuine cringeworthy moments for David Cameron over the syrupy texts of support from former editor of The Sun Rebekah Brooks.

 

We heard from head of the News Corp empire Rupert Murdoch and editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail Paul Dacre. Then there was Hugh Grant, Charlotte Church, Anne Diamond, and Paul and Sheryl Gascoigne.

 

A man was sacked from his role as special adviser for doing his job while Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, kept his.

 

As the cost crawls towards the 4m marker over the next month, Leveson will be considering the future for press regulation; namely it needs some and the current system of "self-regulation" is not working.

 

By autumn he is expected to make his recommendation. The final decision is for the politicians. But this is only the halfway stage. There's more to come: part two is the specifics of hacking at News International and the failed police investigation.

 

The catalyst for the inquiry was a story in The Guardian that a News of the World employee had hacked and then deleted messages on the mobile of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. It has since transpired that while the phone was hacked by Glenn Mulcaire, he did not erase the voicemails.

 

So as the inquiry draws towards half time, we ask: is the Leveson inquiry getting anywhere and is it worthwhile?

 

 Yes: The inquiry has already encouraged the media to take a good look at the system as it stands and find it wanting

 Steve Vaughan

Forget the fact that Steve Coogan didn't want to be famous, Rebekah Brooks rode a police horse called Raisa and enjoyed an, as yet not-quite-defined "country supper" with David Cameron. While the celebrity and chum-ocracy nonsense is entertaining, it hardly makes a big, fat judicial inquiry feel worth the 3 million we are paying for it.

 

But look at the evidence of Sally and Bob Dowler, Kate and Gerry McCann, and Margaret and James Watson, and you will see why the Leveson Inquiry is a) a good thing and b) already getting somewhere.

 

Because it is the ordinary people that will drag this inquiry up by its bootstraps. While I'm very sorry if Coogan, Grant et al feel aggrieved by press coverage, they can at least afford to sue, which does act as a bit of a curb. When something bad happens to your ordinary family, well, as Gerry McCann put it: "it's open season". 

 

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) - the status quo and in effect, journalists sitting in judgement on journalists - has a good set of standards just no really effective sanctions for those falling foul of them. The PPC's biggest punishment is to force a printed apology. Legal redress under defamation or privacy law is well outside the budget of most.

 

And while most people are aware that the press have some fairly unsavoury practices, the inquiry has thrown them into sharp relief: the moving evidence from Sally Dowler about being afraid to open her front door because of the journalists' questions, in the wake of her daughter's murder; Margaret and James Watson, who spoke about the suicide of their teenage son because he could no longer stand negative news stories about his murdered sister - he hanged himself clutching a fistful of newspaper clippings. The PCC did not help them. It took Sheryl Gascoigne to point out that the industry's regulatory body is regarded as a "waste of time".

 

The inquiry has already encouraged the media to take a good look at the system as it stands and find it wanting. Their submissions to the inquiry are tougher, include powers of investigation, fines, codes of conduct, contracts, advertising bans. They've been as tough as they can be in the hope it will stop Leveson passing a law that will force them to stick to a set of rules he will decide.

 

And, while inquiry by a committee of MPs might be a darn sight cheaper, it would feel like an unhappy parliamentary interference. A state suggesting restrictive standards for its commercial media runs the risk of accusations of censorship. A judicial inquiry is the only thing that would win industry respect and support.

 

In some ways Leveson is already working, the airing of embarrassing chumminess between our politicians and the press - who knew? - must surely have cut the number of country, town or city suppers on offer. The police have surely reviewed its horse-loaning policy.

 

Leveson might seem like a silly, unnecessary show trial, but for the ordinary people, it's a hope for a free but fairer press. 

 

No: Judge-led inquiries are supposed to be confined to matters of vital public importance

Zoe Vaughan

Judicial-led inquiries are really becoming the new black. Everyone wants one. And why the hell not? It's a win:win call for political leaders. You call for one and you score one political point for looking like you're doing something. You grant one and you score one political point for the same reason.

 

The loser? The people who foot the bill; these things don't come cheap - around 1m per quarter actually - and in March, Leveson was already knocking on the door of 3m. 

Judge-led inquiries are supposed to be "confined to matters of vital public importance concerning which there is something of a nationwide crisis of confidence." I'm not sure phone hacking quite matches Bloody Sunday for gravity.

 

I'm also of the Ian Hislop persuasion. Phone hacking, police taking money for information, harassment, libel, are all illegal. Admittedly it's all rather sprawling and could perhaps be dealt with better by a special purpose-convened court, rather than getting lost in the achingly slow general purpose courts.

 

But really, do we need the judiciary to listen to hours of celebrity guff when most of the shortcomings are obvious and could be dealt with by cheaper select committee? Leveson has become a tiresome who's who for media wannabes with editors from the Heydon Daily Packet turning up to say nothing of any use; they are only there to get their "I spoke at Leveson" t-shirts. All the while the cost goes up as fast as News International shares go down.

 

The result of Leveson will be that the industry needs a tough regulatory body that can investigate and fine. The dogs in the street could tell you that. The financial regulator fined Barclays 291m, the Press Complaints Commission forces people to say sorry in print.

 

Leveson only recommends and given his keenness to get the press to submit their proposals for improved "self-regulation" it feels unlikely he will be looking to lay down a Leveson law.

 

It will be the politicians who decide and parliament will be reluctant to interfere too heavy-handedly. Newspapers have a history of being partisan and it is a brave politician who takes on the editors. They will also surely want to avoid getting stuck in the raspberry jam that is our privacy laws.

 

Leveson feels like an expensive knee-jerk reaction to a phone hacking story that in the end, it has turned out, is not even wholly true. Oh the irony.

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