Lord Leveson argues that “far from holding power to account, the press is exercising unaccountable power which nobody holds to account”.
Many people will share that view—and so the prospect of regulating the press can seem attractive. But none of Leveson’s proposals would stop the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone. Nor would they prevent journalists paying cops or corrupting politicians.
Leveson proposes a new regulator for the media. Newspapers that refuse to join it, such as Socialist Worker, would be under the remit of the state-appointed regulator Ofcom. The proposed new regulator would have the ability to levy financial penalties of up to £1 million.
Leveson says the new regulator should be able to step in to enforce good ethics. Yet this is a body that will be made up people appointed by the prime minister. The same prime minister who appointed the disgraced Andy Coulson as his spin doctor.
The idea that a regulator could stop press intrusion sounds good. But it’s less so if applied to a construction company that hopes to hide its involvement in blacklisting.
Libel law is already a significant way for the rich protect themselves from scrutiny. Leveson proposes higher libel fines for publications that don’t join the regulator.
And he wants publications that win libel cases to still pay all the legal fees. That single proposal alone could shut down Socialist Worker.
Leveson proposes changing data protection laws to make it illegal to handle leaked documents. This could include the accounts of a failing PFI trust or MPs’ expenses.
He wants to make it easier to for the cops to get journalists to reveal their sources. He argues that “genuine whistleblowers will use confidential avenues rather than feel it necessary to break confidences by bringing about much wider public dissemination through disclosures to the media”.
This is presented as improving the rights of whistleblowers. In reality it’s a way of stopping them from going to the media.
He also writes, “The names or identifying details of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released to the press or the public.”
That sounds like it might protect ordinary people. But it would mean we’d know no details about the charges that Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson face. Tightening reporting restrictions would move justice, and injustice, further from public view.
The prospect of a conscience clause seems to have blinded some in the NUJ union to fall for the trap of regulation. The NUJ has rightly campaigned for a conscience clause for journalists.
Journalists should be able to refuse to produce stories they disagree with. It is good that Leveson accepts the need for one. But a conscience clause is no replacement for good union organisation.
Actual freedom of the press came from struggle. In the 18th and early 19th centuries the press was regulated by taxes. A stamp duty and other taxes were imposed to ensure that newspapers were the preserve of the rich and on message.
The period from the American and French revolutions up to the birth of the working class movement with the Chartists tore this apart. Thousands of radical pamphlets and newspapers appeared that simply refused to pay the stamp duty.
Newspapers that didn’t pay were proudly seditious. That lay the basis of what press freedom exists today.
Cameron and his rich friends portray their opposition to regulation as a defence of “freedom of speech.” That is hypocrisy. Their interest is only in defending their class.
Today the press is controlled by billionaire oligarchs and offshore trusts who use their vast wealth to buy influence over the police and politicians.
Socialist Worker has no interest in defending them. But neither will we join the clamour for a list of measures that can only make it harder to expose the rich and powerful.