Leveson – Filters and Failures

The Prime Minister today surprisingly pulled out of cross-party talks over implementation of the Leveson Report.  His resistance to statutory underpinning, unknown until Leveson actually reported, seems to have become core to his being.

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Stapling himself to cries of “freedom of the press” (which, as David Allen Green pointed out in his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry and a subsequent article in the New Statesman, doesn’t necessarily mean the freedom for a particular industry, merely the right of dissenting opinions to be published) Cameron appears to be trying to curry favour with the media moguls who control the tabloid front pages.  I guess his calculation is that he will need their support in order to win in 2015.

I think he is mistaken.  Cameron acted decisively in July 2011 in calling for the Inquiry, after increasing howls of outrage and disbelief as the phone hacking scandal unfolded.  As the Inquiry progressed, the print media turned a blind eye to the “standard” stories of press abuse, reporting only what they had to.  In doing so they created the names: Dowler, McCann, Jeffries.  At the same time the broadcasters were interested in the celebrities, Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and Charlotte Church.  The coverage was split.  On the one hand you had real, ordinary people suddenly thrust into the spotlight of the press and baldly stating the misrepresentation and harassment that went on.  On the other, the media was trying to dismiss the whole thing as celebrities trying to prevent prying.

Trans Media Watch, the charity I helped set up, was collating its own set of abuse stories.  Jo Shaw and Jennie Kermode pulled together a report which included an analysis of the different ways the media represented trans and intersex people, and some thoughts for future regulation based upon the difficulties we had found in gaining any measure at all of redress from the press.  Most importantly, Jo had gathered a number of supremely harrowing stories.  We included them in the report on the basis that they would never get into the public domain.  We also made reference to the fact that many trans people were too traumatised by their experiences so far to even let us use their stories in such a protected way.  My role – I edited and restructured the document, and added two or three “late” submissions.

When the Leveson Inquiry team asked us whether we would give evidence in person to the Inquiry, we were stunned.  The British media is very unforgiving about the way it presents trans people, so it was potentially very dangerous for one of us (and it turned out to be me) to sit in the public spotlight tearing strips off both the press and the PCC.

Despite this, and a direct challenge from Robert Jay QC to Dominic Mohan (the editor of the Sun), the press still didn’t mend its ways.  Within two weeks I had written a second submission detailing the ongoing press abuse in two further stories.  I pointed out the very real harm that the press was causing through its casual misreporting and wilful disregard for the safety of those involved.  I linked the exposure to the very tropes that we had outlined in our first submission.  The Inquiry team acknowledged receipt of that second submission within minutes.  The press abuse then seemed to stop.

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At least, it stopped until Leveson reported.  Now we’re back to square one.  We are dealing with a code that makes it extremely difficult to complain, is a quasi-legal process where complainants are essentially left to argue with high powered and highly paid lawyers from the media companies, and where the process can rapidly degenerate into a logical point-scoring contest, leaving the abused survivor of the coverage reeling in its wake.  In the meantime the press seems to have decided they can misreport things at will again.  I’m aware of three current issues, all of which appeared in the last month – and that doesn’t include the horrific hate speech that was the Burchill article.

Like the health service, the press regulation system is broken.  Lord Hunt of Wirral stated in his evidence to Leveson that he didn’t believe the PCC was actually a regulator, in direct contravention to what the PCC had said on its own website just a few months earlier.

If this is the way the press behaves when the spotlight is on it, then God help us all when the public outrage and political attention moves on.  Because, as I wrote at the end of TMW’s second submission, “given the lack of any substantive basis for the behaviour of the press, any vulnerable and marginalised minority could also fall victim to this level of misrepresentation with similar lack of redress in the future”. The lack of coverage of the #transdocfail allegations is startling, especially given the media focus on abuse allegations around Jimmy Savile, Lord Rennard and, most recently, Cardinal O’Brien.

Let’s look at what Cameron has said and how his position has substantially shifted:

  • When he initiated the Inquiry, Cameron clearly said that consideration of the victims of press intrusion ought to be at the core of the proceedings, and that they needed to be satisfied with the results.
  • In his own evidence to the Inquiry, he made it clear that a cross-party consensus was required.
  • In subsequent broadcast interviews, he said he would implement Leveson in full unless it was clearly “bonkers”.

But within 90 minutes of Leveson reporting, he stood on the floor of the House of Commons with a new found conviction against statutory underpinning of any new regulator.  This belied his previous statements, and also private discussions with the victims (or, as Baroness Hollins prefers, survivors through experience) of the press.  And his position has become more and more entrenched as the debate progressed.  Rather than looking for cross-party consensus, he seems increasingly want to channel his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, in saying no, no, no.  He’s not said what is “bonkers”, and appears to have had several discussions with editors behind closed doors.  So much for transparency.

The fact that the Labour front bench went very quiet and stopped replying to my emails about Leveson indicated that they were considering how to compromise in some ways.  Ed Miliband’s January deadline came and went.  The silence from the Liberal Democrat front bench was equally alarming.  In fact, the most outspoken views in favour of Leveson implementation seemed to come from certain backbench Conservative MPs and peers.

I believe frustration led to Lord Puttnam putting down his amendments to the Libel Reform bill, and them getting overwhelming backing in the House of Lords.  And while I suspect that that those amendments may well be withdrawn at some point, in order to save the core principles of much needed libel reform, the frustration continues to grow.  As Cameron holds the Parliamentary timetable in his hands, what other options do the pro-Leveson MPs and peers have?

His position now seems to have become “my way or no way”.  What part of “cross-party” does he not understand?

Hacked Off tell me that they are thinking of organising lobbies in Parliament on Monday.  I intend to be there, and I would urge as many people as possible to be there also.  This principle, of protecting vulnerable people from large, exploitative commercial interests (which is ultimately what the press companies are) is so important that I risked the security and privacy of me and my family.  I’ll be damned if I let Cameron risk that for his own political short-term gain.

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