For and against Leveson: two big Fleet Street guns take aim

Nov 30, 2012

Ex-editor denounces misguided missile, while one investigative reporter says there's nothing to fear

THROUGH the cacophony of comment whipped up by the publication of the Leveson report yesterday, two voices stand out. Max Hastings, former editor of The Daily Telegraph, believes the judge's recommendations are a "wholly unguided missile" aimed at the wrong target. Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist whose reporting on the phone-hacking scandal was partly responsible for the establishment of the Leveson inquiry, argues that the objections to reform are "no more than froth on the lips of propagandists".

Davies is scathing about claims from "the dark end of the [press] industry" that Leveson's prescription of "independent self-regulation" is a threat to press freedom, likening them to "the rapist who claims the police are a threat to free love".

The Leveson report has its faults, writes Davies in The Guardian, for example the suggestion that police officers should no longer be able to give off-the-record tip-offs to the media, but taken as a whole, it is not "any kind of catastrophe for British journalism".

Davies lists the "nightmares" propagated by sections of the press "that have not become real" following the Leveson report's publication. "The government is not being invited to take over the press. All those full-page advertisements linking Lord Justice Leveson to Robert Mugabe and Bashar Assad, all that high-octane coverage in the Sun and the Mail about his report ‘imposing a government leash on papers' and threatening 'state regulation of Britain's free press' has proved to be no more than froth on the lips of propagandists, simply another round of the same old distortion that did so much to create this inquiry in the first place."

Davies says the idea of independent self-regulation poses "no obvious problem" to journalists and explains why legislation - so dreaded by the press - is required. It is so that one of Leveson's best ideas - an independent arbitrator that will reduce the cost to journalists of being sued - will carry legal weight with the courts.

"There is a nightmare here, but it is for the old guard of Fleet Street. To lose control of the regulator is to lose their licence to do exactly as they please."

Politicians see legislation as payback time for the Commons expenses scandal, argues Hastings in the Daily Mail, though he reserves most of his venom for Leveson, who has shown a "lack of wisdom" in launching a "wholly unguided missile" at the wrong culprit.

Leveson's answer to the criminal behaviour of a few journalists "is to terminate centuries of bold, brassy, often vulgar and disreputable - but also brave and important - British journalism and dress the press in a tight, clumsy straitjacket of his own manufacture".

Hastings suggests that the sins of journalists are as nothing to the failures of politicians, lawyers, policemen and judges, whose "shocking blunders" have far more serious consequences for society and have cost innocent people their freedom.

The gross breaches of privacy that led to the inauguration of the Leveson inquiry were a result of large-scale criminality – not a lapse in press ethics.

The police then failed to properly investigate phone hacking and David Cameron felt compelled to set up Leveson because of his embarrassingly close relationships with former News International editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson.

"The only credible response to criminality is to fine or imprison the guilty. No regulatory body, including the one proposed by Leveson, can possibly do the job of the police," writes Hastings.

"And the price of creating such a body through legislation is to sacrifice the centuries-old tradition of a free press on the altar of past police incompetence and politicians' folly."

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