The Leveson Debate, Transcript

Blog: The Editors, 18 January 2013
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The Leveson Debate, hosted by Soho Skeptics and Conway Hall on 17 January, asked, 'What are we to make of the Leveson Report? Is the Leveson Report a threat to public interest journalism?'

Chair: Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman.

Panellists: Journalist Nick Cohen (The Observer, The Spectator), journalist and columnist Suzanne Moore (The Guardian, The Mail on Sunday), former Liberal Democrat MP, Evan Harris (Hacked Off), and, Co-Director of the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre, Natalie Fenton (Hacked Off).

The following transcript includes the opening statements of each panellist.

An audio recording of the debate is available in full at the Pod Delusion.

Helen Lewis: The idea of having statutory-underpinned regulation - it's absurdly hyperbolic to say that's going to turn us into Belarus, or Iran, or China. Isn't it?

Nick Cohen: Yes, but I would warn you that the struggle for liberty in Britain has always been hyperbolic, from the 17th century onwards, people have compared often quite harmless politicians to Louis 14th's absolute France, Napoleonic Jacobean terror, Prussian Junkers, Nazis, communists. The reason you are free, the reason we are free, we have what freedoms we have […] is, throughout English history, people have put those who've put restrictions on freedom … they've attacked them. And they have made extravagant claims and people probably make extravagant claims now – you probably hear extravagant claims all the time – but the price of liberty is perpetual hyperbole.

So, no, we’re not going to be turned into Belarus, but political underpinning … statutory underpinning […]. There are very real dangers in this process. If you have any system that isn’t voluntary, first of all you’ll have parliament passing an act, and Chris Blackhurst, the editor of the independent, who is no friend of Rupert Murdoch’s, has warned quite rightly that politicians will start setting the agenda. […]

Look at what’s happening now, look at what’s happening with people like Lynne Featherstone. Look at how politicians are suddenly demanding that journalists be fired for expressing opinions, something I’ve never heard a senior minister in Britain say before, and I’ve lived through Thatcher […] I’ve lived through the early years of Tony Blair, when it was very authoritarian, Alistair Campbell was in his pomp. These kinds of things are happening all the time now.

HL: Hacked Off have been very specific about saying there’s a very big difference between statutory regulation and statutory-underpinned regulation. I.e. you have a law that sets up a regulator but then there is no further interference. But it’s the principle, isn’t it? That politicians shouldn’t be making laws to regulate the press, they shouldn’t be above the press. That’s the problem here.

Evan Harris: Well, I mean actually, I think you’re challenging me to say that there’s state regulation over here, there’s statutory regulation, that’s where the state doesn’t regulate but sets up an independent statutory regulator, which is not what Leveson did. And then there’s independent self-regulation which has statutory underpinning, which says, ‘Press, have another go, seventy years on the last chance saloon, but this time your PCC model will have to meet certain requirements of being independent of you, of not allowing you to mark your own homework, of not being able to say that we are going to improve standards and not abuse monopolies, abuse power, and then actually do it’. You can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to say that you’re self-regulating effectively, then from now on your self-regulator that you set up yourselves – that you’re not compelled to join – it’s voluntary – will have to meet certain standards. And if it does, then you’ll have benefits. If you’re sued you’ll be able to say, ‘We’re trying, we’re doing our best, so even though we may have breached someone else’s rights’ – whether it’s their right to privacy right to a reputation, a whole series of other rights. […] Although you found that you may have done that, you will be treated more lightly because you’re part of a regulatory system, which is a self-regulatory that’s striving hard.

So it’s well way from even statutory regulation, which is itself well away from state regulation.

My final point would be that it’s no threat, absolutely no threat, to freedom of speech. It may be a threat to the freedom Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch to do as they wish at the expense of vulnerable people. And the state has a role to ensure that that abuse does not take place, without giving any control to politicians to interfere directly, or even under this scheme, indirectly.

HL: Suzanne, we heard submissions at the Leveson Inquiry from a lot of different groups. There were quite a lot of women’s groups represented, for example. Nothing seems to be likely to come out of Leveson apart from some form of enhanced regulator. So in that sense, wasn’t it just a big, fat waste of time?

Suzanne Moore: […] I would say that a lot of the things that people don’t like [about] the press and are really complaining about – media ownership, Murdoch, the representation of women, and the ability of the internet to publish things that other people don’t want published – has not been addressed by Leveson. […]

What was evident during Leveson – and obviously having worked for a lot of newspapers – was that you had this judiciary who do not understand that newspapers are not only a dying industry, but a business. And the whole point about a newspaper, whether you like them or not, is that you have to make a new one everyday. It’s a product and you have to make a new one everyday. And that seemed to be totally missing from the Inquiry.

But when it comes to Evan’s point about regulation and the power of the state, which he sort of said, ‘Well, it’s not really the state. It’s something different to the state’. It really reminds me of debates that I had as a feminist about pornography. There was a time when as a feminist you hated pornography, or you were anti-censorship, so you had to take a side. And the thing about the pornography that most people hated was already illegal. Child pornography is illegal. Phone hacking is already illegal. You can’t make things that are already illegal more illegal.

What you can do is give more to people, politicians, to tell you what you can read and what you can see. At a time when we trust politicians less and less, and there is more and more disconnect, why on earth would you do that?

HL: Natalie, Suzanne raises the point that we talked about the internet very little during the Leveson Inquiry and I know that it came up in the evidence of Martin Clarke, who’s editor of Mail Online. Is there any point trying to regulate British press when it’s operating in such a globalised market place?

Natalie Fenton: Well, again, I would agree with Evan that we’re not talking about regulating the press here. We are talking about a two arms length away from that. This is about setting up standards that the press are then required to be accountable to, but it’s not about state regulation in any shape or form.

Part of the issue – and Suzanne is right – that this is a business and part of that is about an entirely globalised, marketised, and heavily commercialised media. So we’re dealing with a very difficult situation where we think that there’s a relationship between news and democracy, that there is, the news – we frequently hear the phrase – is a lifeblood of democracy. But actually, these are businesses, a lot of the time. As Trevor Kavanagh said in his evidence to Leveson, […] ‘this is a commercial operation; we’re not in it for a public service’.

Now if you separate that relationship between news and democracy, we’re left with a very different beast, but most of us, and most journalists operating in the industry, go into it because they actually think there is a relationship, that journalism is there to hold power to account […] to hold truth to power, as the phrase goes. The problem is, because of the commercial imperatives, the desire to sell has overtaken the desire… or any democratic intent, at some level.

HL: You talk about the desire to sell but isn’t the fact that people are voting with their feet for the kind of things that you don’t want them to read, people are reading Mail Online in their droves. Ian Hislop said at the Leveson Inquiry […] ‘When these people bought the News of the World, what did they think they were getting?’

NF: Absolutely, there is real balance between news that we say is in the public interest, and news that the public is interested in. Okay, and we need both. It’s not that we’re saying all news should be ‘worthy’, in that sense. […] But there does need to be some sort of balance. We do need news that informs, and enables people to make decisions off their own back in a democratic society. So, we do need that process. That has to be fulfilled. It won’t be fulfilled just by a global market place and the internet. That’s a fallacy. And all the studies that we have in academia, that will show us that actually news online largely replicates news that we have in the mainstream. It’s not that we’re getting a much more plural and diverse, and […] invigorated public sphere. That’s simply not the case.

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