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December 5, 2022

Litigation not regulation said to be behind press good behaviour ten years after Leveson

Is litigation only route open to settling disputes with press ten years on from Leveson?

By Dominic Ponsford

Ten years on from publication of the Leveson report most agree that tabloid journalists have become better behaved compared to the years preceding the inquiry.

The use of phone-hacking and other illegal information-gathering methods, widespread on Fleet Street before Leveson, is no more.

Arguably the biggest scandals that have come to light post-Leveson have involved the BBC, not the printed press: the Jimmy Savile and Martin Bashir cover-ups.

But has the improvement in press behaviour been due to the strengthened system of press regulation that Leveson inspired, or the threat of criminal sanction and the increasing power of lawyers over the news media?

Leveson’s main legacy was press regulator IPSO, which has two significant powers that are not used: a low-cost privacy and libel mediation service and the ability to levy fines and independent investigations.

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Meanwhile, lawyers are increasingly using the threat of litigation to stifle public interest stories. The Daily Mail and Guardian were at polar opposites in the debate over press regulation, with the result that The Guardian remains a press regulation refusenik. But the editors of both titles last week backed a call for the government to tackle bullying SLAPP legal cases against publishers.

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Founder of the gossip email newsletter Popbitch Camilla Wright has been chronicling tabloid misdeeds for more than 20 years.

Asked for her assessment on whether Fleet Street is better or worse behaved since Leveson she said: “A tabloid media culture that had started to act beyond its remit, beyond the laws and beyond public acceptance needed a reckoning. And for that, the pause and restart Leveson provided should be applauded as a good thing. But beyond this headline summary the reality has been a little underwhelming, and even counter-productive. 

“The reality is that it has been getting harder and harder for reporters to get important and legitimate stories out as publishers and executives have run increasingly scared of the legal threats pushed at them by the rich and famous. Threats and tactics that got refined by lawyers and reputation management specialists in the celebrity superinjunction era are now used by those facing serious allegations of corporate, sexual, financial and criminal misdeeds. 

“And it’s not just that potentially big stories are going unpublished. Privacy law, regulatory threats and expensive lawyers – plus the post-hacking feeling that public opinion is not on the side of journalistic revelations –  means that a lot of the minutiae of day-to-day reporting (we could even say gossip) has been lost. 

“In its place is a sort of vacuum through which rumours, conspiracy theories and fake news thrive. While media outlets have reined in their coverage of the private lives of those with public profiles largely for good reason (Leveson effect) it has helped to facilitate a myriad of less trustworthy, less regulated sources moving into the space.

“This has helped to lead to a public perception that there are things that can’t be printed or won’t be printed..  i.e. that the media are covering things up. An open culture of news reporting – whether for entertainment or more serious – provides a loud, rambunctious open space for discussion, where people can gain knowledge they can trust. When this is neutered it’s easy for bad actors to step in.  Loud voices on social platforms only seem more compelling and authoritative than media sources as we have allowed them to be so.

“The tech platforms that distribute news have way more power than the news sources they distribute, though – unbelievably – are still not regulated as the media publishers they undoubtedly are and always have been. 

“Individuals/influencers across multiple channels have reached way beyond that of the legacy media brands. Personal data is stolen, misused and sold in ways that noughties tabloid execs couldn’t even dream of. In some ways, it’s hard to think Leveson was only ten years since many of the things the inquiry was so exercised about – like showbiz columns, tabloid stings, voicemail recordings and the Sun cover story – seem to belong to an entirely bygone era.”

Lawyer Mark Lewis played a key role in prompting the Leveson report with his representation of the first News of the World hacking litigants and the family of Milly Dowler.

He said that lawyers do hold the press in check, but only because that is the only effective route available.

He said: “It might be that there have been certain improvements in the press but ultimately the only way is to continue to use libel, privacy, data protection and other civil laws to get redress for those affected. The only difference between IPSO and the old Press Complaints Commission is that IPSO does not pretend to be a regulator.

Impress does not have the members to adjudicate on and Hacked Off is out of fashion as the political will seems more intent on ignoring it than listening to it. Regrettably, agenda politics has taken over the proper issue of preventing the press from some very serious abuses.”

Tamsin Allen, another lawyer who was involved in the Leveson Inquiry and who has represented many phone-hacking victims, also agreed press behaviour has improved.

She said: “There has certainly been an improvement in some areas – for example in police providing information to journalists for publication about people under investigation, and in publishing salacious stories about private sexual life.

“But what is striking is that these are mainly the result of litigation; newspapers, like politicians, do not change poor behaviour without sanction. We still have no independent regulation of the press and so it is left to the courts to provide that sanction.”

IPSO chief executive Charlotte Dewar takes a different view on the effectiveness of her body, which oversees standards at the majority of UK newspaper and magazine titles in print and online.

She said: “In the ten years since Lord Leveson’s report, publishers have demonstrated real progress and seriousness in engaging with regulation.

“The past ten years have been transformational for UK news organisations. Since IPSO was established eight years ago, we have worked to balance the interests of people with justified complaints and of a free, vigorous and accountable press.

“Publishers have engaged with us constructively – taking complaints seriously and complying with our rulings and adjudications when required to do so. They have overhauled their in-house editorial compliance processes to ensure they are meeting the standards that IPSO places on dealing with complaints properly and promptly.

“Research by the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Freedom of the Media found that the UK media got better at handling complaints and correcting inaccuracies under IPSO regulation.

“The benefits of accountability and trust were starkly illustrated during the Covid-19 pandemic when from March 2020 to April 2021 when Coronavirus dominated news media. Only ten per cent of 31,953 complaints received by IPSO were related to the coverage of the pandemic. IPSO’s Covid Report showed how editorial standards evolved over the pandemic as editors adapted in response to challenge from IPSO and their readers.

“As we look to the future, the high-quality journalism that this country can be rightly proud of faces significant challenge from online competition. Most urgently, the threat to the economic viability of our news industry must be tackled urgently.

“Trust in news offers real benefits both to readers and the publications we regulate. Over the next ten years IPSO will continue to raise editorial standards to protect the public and freedom of expression.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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