London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Lance Price, a former BBC political journalist and media adviser to then Prime Minister Tony Blair, wrote in 2010 that “Britain boasts one of the oldest democracies on earth. Her political traditions have been admired and copied the world over. Yet today they are in crisis”. Price was unaware at the time that a greater crisis was brewing at the heart of the British political and media establishment that would explode in a frenzy of allegations around phone hacking that would bring down the best-selling English language newspaper on the planet in July 2011 and lead to the creation into an inquiry that would seek to challenge the foundations of how the media in Britain operates.
That paper was the News of the World, a Sunday tabloid with a 168-year old history that was famous for its explosive ‘scoops’ where it beat its rivals to a story or exposed a high-profile incident or celebrity. It was famous for deploying a ‘Fake Sheikh’, the undercover journalist Mazher Mahmood, who would conduct sting operations with the assistance of hidden cameras. The paper claimed that his actions led to the arrest of over 250 criminals, his most famous scoop was in August 2010 when he exposed a cricket bookie named Mazhar Majeed who revealed that Pakistani cricketers had committed spot-fixing during Pakistan’s 2010 tour of England. The paper was owned by News International, a subsidiary of News Corporation – the world’s second-largest media conglomerate – whose chairman is the Australian born media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch’s power and influence over British politics has been an issue of constant speculation. Before he became Prime Minister Tony Blair admitted in 1994 that in the next election “the only thing that matters in this campaign is the media”. In 1995 Blair would lay the groundwork for Murdoch’s support of his 1997 election win when, as leader of the opposition, he flew to a small Australian island to speak at one of his conference’s.
Murdoch’s newspapers, in the eyes of British politicians, became a vital platform for attaining power. Their influence was reflected in the personal connections of the News of the World management. Rebekah Brooks, the Chief Executive of News International, regularly visited the Prime Minister’s countryside residence and when David Cameron was elected Prime Minister in 2010 he brought with him Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor (2003-2007), as his Communications Director responsible for managing political messaging from the heart of British government.
It is against this backdrop of power and influence that the phone hacking scandal emerged. In 2007 News of the World’s royal correspondent, Clive Goodman, was caught “hacking” the phones of the royal palace. Goodman had not done the deed himself but rather had subcontracted the job to a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, who managed to ‘hack’ into voicemail messages. Both Mulcaire and Goodman were jailed, with News International claiming that both men were ‘rotten apples’, acting alone with no oversight or direction.
This could have been the end of the story if it hadn’t been for The Guardian newspaper, a British broadsheet with a circulation of a little over 300,000, and its investigative journalist Nick Davies. On the 8 July 2009 Davies revealed that News Group (part of News International) had paid more than £1m to settle legal cases that would have named other phone hacking journalists. This revelation showed that Mulcaire and Goodman were only the tip of the iceberg and that there could have been thousands more victims of phone hacking. News International went on the attack, denying these claims with Rebekah Brooks claiming that the Guardian’s coverage had “substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public”.
However throughout 2010 stories of ‘rife’ phone hacking at the News of the World steadily increased and by 2011 the British police arrested several of their staff. The key date, however, when historians will say that the scandal escalated into the stratosphere was 4th July 2011; on that day it was reported that the News of the World had hacked into the phone of Milly Dowler. It is an unlikely series of events that connected the fall of a media giant with the tragic story of the twelve-year-old Dowler, who went missing on her way home in the town of Walton-on-Thames in March 2002. The disappearance of the young girl dominated the headlines and when it was revealed that messages had been deleted from her voicemail her parents were given hope that she may still be alive. In reality she had been murdered soon after being abducted by the serial killer Levi Bellfield although her body was not discovered until September that year.
The revelation that the News of the World had hacked Milly Dowler’s phone – although it would turn out later that they hadn’t been responsible for the deleted messages – was the event that made the newspaper so toxic that despite it being the most successful in the country, it was shut down three days later. Rupert Murdoch then appeared alongside his son James at a Parliamentary committee later that same month using the occasion to tell the public – before he was attacked with a custard pie – that apologising for the hacking ‘was the most humble day of his life’. The stories of the hackings had created a perfect storm; its victims included high profile celebrities, such as actor Hugh Grant, the Royal Family, politicians and prominent members of public such as the Dowler family. The issue dominated the press and the airwaves and led Prime Minister Cameron to set up the Leveson Inquiry in July 2011.
The Leveson Inquiry is a public Judge-led Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. Although the inquiry was clearly a direct consequence of the revelations surrounding the News of the World’s phone-hacking, its remit demonstrates an attempt to investigate the critically important relationship between the press, politicians and the police, whose failure to succeed in revealing the hacking sooner was a huge blot on the officers involved.
The Inquiry is planned out into four parts and is expected to be completed within a year. The initial part looks at the relationship between the press and the public and looks at phone-hacking and other potentially illegal behaviour. Part two explores the relationships between the press and police and the extent to which that has operated in the public interest. Part three examines the relationship between press and politicians and finally part four seeks to provide recommendations for a more effective policy and regulation that support the integrity and freedom of the press while encouraging the highest ethical standards.
The Inquiry takes place in Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice, an imposing 19th century stone building on the Strand in the centre of London, ironically enough a short walk away from Fleet Street, the previous home of British papers until the Murdoch-led the exodus in the 1980s. The courtroom is presided over by Judge Leveson, a bookish 62-year-old high court judge who earned himself a public reputation when he oversaw the high profile 2006 trial over the murder of 10-year-old London schoolboy Damilola Taylor. The core of Judge Leveson’s remit is to examine media law, matters of privacy and the key question of whether or not there should be increased regulation of the media. Leveson opened the hearings on Monday 14 November 2011, saying: “the press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?” Guarding the guardians, another phrase for regulation, is currently provided through a combination of self-regulation, legislation and the contributions of a number of agencies including the ‘Press Complaints Commission’ (PCC) and the Office of Communications (Ofcom).
More than 50 alleged victims of media malpractice have been granted the right to be core participants while a range of witnesses have also contributed to the Inquiry. In September Judge Leveson said that “I don’t consider this to be a court, but we will see
how we get on”. While Leveson may not see it as a court and more of a setting for his fact finding mission, it would appear to have all the ingredients of one – being in a courtroom with a judge, interrogating lawyers and witnesses swearing on oath. The sessions are televised and live stream online and testimonies are sifted thorough in detail by the very media organisations that the inquiry is investigating.
Part of the reason the Inquiry has received so much coverage is the celebrity factor of many the victims themselves, a critical factor in why they had their phones hacked in the first place. The range of celebrity victims is impressive and includes actors and actresses whose names have already been associated with the phone hacking litigation such as Sienna Miller, Jude Law and Hugh Grant, and politicians such as John Prescott, Tessa Jowell, Simon Hughes and Mark Oaten. Also targeted were the ‘infamous’ such as Christopher Jefferies, the man who was wrongly vilified by the press over the murder of Joanna Yeates; and Max Mosley, whose private life was shattered by the late News of the World. Baroness Hollins spoke to the inquiry in February about the press attention her family received after her pregnant daughter Abigail Witchalls was paralysed in a knife attack. She spoke of being hounded by the press, being given ‘bugged flowers’ and eventually having to have a police guard protecting against further intrusion. The treatment of Hollins and her family is one of the reasons the inquiry is examining the issue of media ethics in particular. Interestingly Richard Desmond, the owner of the Daily Express, when asked about the ethical constraints of his newspapers replied: “well, ethical, I don’t quite know what the word means.”
Hugh Grant’s testimony to the Leveson Inquiry provided insight into the battle between celebrities and the media. In it he wrote of how “the battle is uneven. They have the powerful microphone of their paper and a million speakers in the internet. You have the tiny party trumpet of your lawyer (and of course the broken whistle of the PCC).” Grant has become one of the celebrities to take the fight back to the media. In April of last year before the Dowler hacking had emerged, Grant secretly recorded a conversation in a bar with former-News of the World journalist Paul McMullan. Grant explained that “I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistle-blower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, the bugger bugged, as it were”.
While the victims and witness testimonies point the finger it is clear that the accused are the media themselves and in particular the tabloid press, prompting satirical magazine Private Eye to question ‘how can the troubled tabloids see off Lord Justice Leveson and his pesky Inquiry?’ Yet while Private Eye regularly lampoons the failures of the press in its ‘Street of Shame’ column (a reference to the Fleet Street), its Editor, Ian Hislop, spoke at the Inquiry against further controls, stating that “statutory regulation is not required”.
The exact outcomes of the Inquiry will not be known until the autumn but the trial has already shone a light on multiple layers of malpractice within the UK media. It has also put the reasoning for and the ethics of the UK written press to the test more rigorously than at any time in its history. Its role as the ‘Fourth Estate,’ the body which continually holds the Houses of Parliament in check has allowed the UK print media to accrue huge power without any formal responsibility and as a result no direct accountability. That state of affairs, which has essentially been in place for 200 years, is now being questioned. Testimony from celebrities such as Hugh Grant are highlighted as examples of the gradual blurring of the line between producing stories which are in the ‘public interest’ and stories which are of ‘interest to the public,’ with several commentators arguing that the UK tabloid media is now driven only by salacious gossip rather than any desire to hold people in power to account.
The very fact an Inquiry has been called is also significant as it symbolises a tacit acceptance by the UK Houses of Parliament that they do not have the ability or that its members are themselves too involved in the crisis to be able to properly arbitrate on the matter. The Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war is perhaps the best example in recent UK history where once again an issue was seen as so controversial and so directly linked with individual personalities within Parliament and the Government that an independent inquiry was needed. The same is true today because it is not only phone-hacking and other journalistic malpractice which is being investigated, it is also the murky world of relations between journalists and MPs; and journalists and senior police officers. The inter-linkage between senior figures in politics, media and the police had built up such a level of mistrust amongst the public that the commissioning of an independent inquiry was the only option open to the Government.
So what does the future hold for the UK media, its regulation and the role it plays in the country’s democracy? Firstly, it is worth noting that the Leveson Inquiry is just one part of a three-part process currently underway. At the same time the Leveson Inquiry is taking place the Metropolitan Police is continuing its comprehensive, and some would say long-overdue, criminal investigation into phone-hacking by UK newspapers. In addition several cases against UK newspapers or individual journalists are likely to be taken to the UK’s civil courts. All three of these parallel processes – the Leveson Inquiry, the Police investigation, and potential civil trials – will have an impact on the future of the UK press. Indeed speaking to the authors of this article Gaby Hinsliff, former Political Editor at the national Sunday paper the Observer, predicted that ‘the police investigation could actually be of more lasting importance than any findings from the Leveson Inquiry.’ The fact that seven journalists and management staff from the Sun, the UK’s biggest selling newspaper, were arrested in late January is a clear sign that the police believe there are grounds for further prosecutions. In a country famed for its media freedom the spectre of further multiple journalists being sent to prison is of huge political and cultural importance.
But even if the criminal investigation fails to lead to prosecutions it is hard to see the status quo within the UK print media remaining. There is a sense among UK media watchers that the Leveson Inquiry marks a watershed moment for the UK press. There have been crises before, in fact in 1990 a previous inquiry was set up to review the conduct of the UK print press after concerns were raised over several cases of tabloid intrusion. That Inquiry, led by Sir David Calcutt QC, was widely seen as ineffective and led to no new formal responsibilities for the print press. Equally in 1997 after the tragic death of Diana Princess of Wales, the press entered into an informal agreement with the Royal Family and the UK Government constricting their ability to intrude on the lives of the Royals. This gentleman’s pact lasted at best for 5 years before the lines between what is and isn’t media intrusion once again became muddled. This time around there is broad agreement, even amongst newspaper editors, that something needs to change. The self-regulation of the industry by the self-appointed Press Complaints Commission has been proven to be ineffective – the question now is what to do about it.
If the Leveson Inquiry is to lead to lasting change it has three options at its disposal; legal, commercial, or regulatory. There are ways the Inquiry could fudge the decision with a mixture of tweaks within each of these three areas being proposed – this is widely seen as the worst possible outcome. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat Professor George Brock, of London’s City University School of Journalism and former Managing Editor of The Times, said that he believes that Leveson ‘will be haunted by the memory of the Calcutt Inquiry and its failure to enact real change, the odds are that Leveson will make clear and important recommendations.’ But six months into the Inquiry process and it is far from clear which avenue Lord Leveson and his team will pursue, and while there is consensus that something needs to be done there is little agreement of what exactly that that something should be.
The first option open to Leveson is to recommend legislative action. This is also the most difficult. Britain already has strong libel law allowing public figures and businesses alike a platform to attack papers they believe have slandered them. Many argue that far from needing to be beefed up, Britain’s libel law is balanced far too much in favour of alleged victims. Big companies with big pockets have on more than one occasion used Britain’s libel laws to legally intimidate newspapers out of running with legitimate stories that are arguably very much in the public’s interest. This leaves the option of a new privacy law. Unlike France the UK does not have specific privacy legislation designed to protect against press intrusion, instead victims often turn to the UK Human Rights Act. Recommending a strong, new privacy law would be a big step for Leveson with potentially devastating consequences for UK investigative journalism. While the Leveson Inquiry has revealed the very darkest side of Britain’s newspapers it must be remembered that British investigative journalism is still of world beating quality. As this article has highlighted, papers such as the now defunct News of the World have unearthed huge scandals involving everyone from politicians, to sportsman, to business leaders. A new privacy law would need to be expertly crafted to ensure that it did not simply become a further tool for the powerful to use against legitimate media scrutiny.
The second option for Leveson would be to recommend curtailing the commercial power of the UK’s papers. The paper in the middle of the current scandal, The News of the World, was after all backed by the might of the News International empire. The power such papers had, it is argued, made them become impervious to legal or ethical constraints in the way they chased stories. Many commentators also argue that the expansionary zeal and commercial competitiveness of several of the UK’s tabloids also pushed their journalists to go to any length possible to beat their rivals to a story, including deeply unethical practices like phone-hacking. But while Leveson has heard evidence about the malevolent culture fostered within papers run purely as commercial entities it is perhaps too great a leap to assume curtailing a newspaper group’s market share would lead to better journalism. The spectre of barring successful news groups from growing also makes defenders of the free-market particularly uneasy.
This leaves Leveson with one final option, the reform and strengthening of industry regulation. As this article has highlighted the PCC has been strongly criticized for its inability to police the press. Interestingly when formed in 1990 the PCC was initially given an 18 month probationary period to see if it would work as an effective regulator, should it not then Parliament would be brought in to create legislation to control the press. The PCC survived then but it almost certainly won’t survive now, at least not in its current form. But there are no simple answers to what might replace the PCC.
The two key problems for a new regulatory body, the problems which essentially hamstrung the PCC, are the lack of power which comes with any voluntary non-statutory body and the unique subjectivity of news, the product the press creates and sells. It is hard to make clear and rapid judgements on news content and how it is garnered, unlike say the food industry where it is relatively easy to assess the standard of a product. On the first problem, Leveson would have to offer some suggestions on just how to strengthen any new regulatory body – just how do you convince newspaper editors that non-conformity to the new body would be detrimental to their paper when no that editor knows that no legal or financial punishment could be enforced. This problem has been continually highlighted with the persistent unwillingness of the Express Newspaper group to join the current PCC. The group knows that the consequences of not joining and complying with the current regulator are simply not strong enough to worry them.
On the issue of subjectivity, the current PCC system simply arbitrates on complaints of inaccuracies and untruths in press stories. Any new body would have to expand its remit in order to judge on a larger set of issues not least the ethics and methods of getting stories in the first place.
But not withstanding these challenges, a new and strengthened industry regulator is probably the preferred choice of the majority of those who have a stake in the Leveson Inquiry. While several victims of phone-hacking have used the Leveson Inquiry as a platform to push for legislation, there is no huge appetite amongst politicians to legislate and newspaper editors, unsurprisingly, feel this would be a dangerous road to go down. In contrast a strong regulator with a clearly defined remit could potentially hold newspapers to account and instil new legitimacy on an industry not only suffering from an image problem but also a seemingly inexorable decline in sales as internet based news balloons.
Whatever decisions Lord Leveson comes to later this year, the UK media industry is now undoubtedly in a different place to where it was before the inquiry started. Genuinely epoch changing moments in public life are rare and it remains to be seen just how significant this scandal will be but the sheer size of it coupled with the fact that the newspaper industry is also facing a near existential crisis in its business model in the face of web-based news media and so-called citizen journalism means it is hard to see the culture and practices of the UK press, and specifically the tabloid press, not changing.
Speaking about the tabloid press, Professor Block says it ‘would be a tragedy if the investigative capacity of the popular press collapsed.’ Indeed several journalists including Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, the paper which led the charge in revealing the malpractice of the tabloids, have outlined the pivotal role the tabloids play in revealing stories of national importance and bringing them into the news mainstream where they are picked up by the broadsheet press and broadcast media. It is unlikely Professor Brock or Jonathan Freedland will be lamenting the death of the tabloid media any time soon. The so-called ‘red-tops’ still enjoy huge readerships, although they are in comparative decline, and several are pursuing aggressive expansions into the online space. And while new media outlets and citizen journalism are on the rise traditional newspapers will continue to play the role of quality controller; adding context, evidence and interpretation to the raw news currently generated online.
Perhaps most intriguing will be how the tabloid and wider print media restructure their investigative units and the veracity with which they chase controversial stories which take time and huge capacity to back up. Journalists will in effect have to go back-to-basics. Hunches and leads will have to be backed up by real investigation rather than journalists simply reverting to anything from wiretaps to fishing operations. There is of course also a real risk that we will see less stories broken and less legitimate targets of media scrutiny being investigated. But a cursory look at the headlines of the UK papers on any given day would reveal that the aggressive scepticism and investigative nature of the British press is still alive and well. Few would want the Leveson Inquiry, the Metropolitan police or indeed any new media regulator to put paid to that.
Additional Reporting by Sam Hardy
James Denselow writes for The Guardian, The Huffington Post and the New Statesman and appears regularly in the international broadcast media. He is a contributing author to “An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy?” and “America and Iraq: Policy-making, Intervention and Regional Politics Since 1958″ and currently advises the British Government on its policy towards the Arab Spring. He is a board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU).