Changing the ‘weather’ in British Politics? The potential impact of the Leveson Inquiry on the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press

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Colin Thain, Head of Department at POLSIS, suggests that the Leveson Inquiry could end up by being one of the most significant inquiries into the nature and rules of the game of British politics.

Forget about all the plays and musicals on in the west end of London, the place for high drama and theatre is Court 73 of the Royal Courts of Justice (the ‘Old Bailey) just off the Strand (and appropriately enough near Fleet Street) in London. Here sits the Leveson Inquiry, headed by Lord Justice Leveson. He opened his inquiry on 14 November 2011, with the words: “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?”

Prime Minister Cameron set up a two-part inquiry investigating the role of the press and police in the phone-hacking scandal, on 13 July 2011. Under the Inquiries Act 2005 it has the power to summon witnesses including reporters, politicians, police officers, civil servants, newspaper proprietors, actors, celebrities and members of the public, who give evidence under oath and in public. Part one of the inquiry examines the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the media’. Lord Justice Leveson will examine ‘the relationship of the press with the public, police and politicians’ Supported by a panel of six independent assessors, he will ‘make recommendations on the future of press regulation and governance consistent with maintaining freedom of the press and ensuring the highest ethical and professional standards.’ Lord Leveson has organised the inquiry around four ‘modules’:

  • Module 1: The relationship between the press and the public and looks at phone-hacking and other potentially illegal behaviour.
  • Module 2: The relationships between the press and police and the extent to which that has operated in the public interest.
  • Module 3: The relationship between press and politicians.
  • Module 4: Recommendations for a more effective policy and regulation that supports the integrity and freedom of the press while encouraging the highest ethical standards.

The first two modules have been the focus of the inquiry until now, with module 3 evidence due to complete at the end of June and module 4 will be discussed in July 2012, with the inquiry ending in July.

Public inquiries are a key part of the British way of doing politics and government. They are set up for a mixture of reasons – as a way of genuinely looking at miscarriages of justice or systemic administrative or policy failure, as way to get a Government or Prime Minister off the hook, as a result of public opinion, and as a way of embarrassing previous administrations. In other words, highly charged and highly political. Over the post war period many stand out. Some have been damp squibs – the Hutton Inquiry on weapons of mass destruction and the death of Dr David Kelly, and the 1982 Franks inquiry into the Falklands war stand out here. Some have profoundly changed the nature of politics or the law or have closed searing episodes in public affairs – for example the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday, set up in 1998, the Scarman Report on the 1981 Brixton riots, and the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry led by Sir William Macpherson which reported in 1999.

Leveson, alongside the Chilcott inquiry on the war in Iraq (due to report imminently) promises to be in the groundbreaking category. Why?

Firstly, because the transcripts and rulings of the inquiry read like a graduate guide to key aspects of British politics. They provide primary, raw material for an assessment of the role of the press in national life. They promise to open up discussion of the relationship between the police and the press, and politicians and the press.

So the classic undergraduate question – ‘how powerful is the media in politics?’ – can be answered with the evidence given by Rupert Murdoch head of News International, the editors of the Daily Express, Mail, Mirror, Star, Guardian, and the National Union of Journalists, Press Association, BBC and ITN, as well as former Communications Directors in No 10 such as Alastair Campbell and Andy Coulson. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has given written evidence and today Tony Blair is giving oral evidence.

Just under 500 people and organisations have been before the inquiry in person or have submitted written evidence; many have done both. All the major police forces in GB and many of the most senior officers and former senior officers are represented in the list of evidence. The notes provided by the QC for the inquiry (now a YouTube hit) Robert Jay before each ‘module’ run to pages of closely argued assessments of the key issues. Read for example the 27 pages he devotes to discussing contacts between newspapers and politicians (Opening Submission: Module 3). The inquiry is the stuff of contemporary political analysis – from the sociology of who has been involved in the inquiry – pressure groups, members of the ‘establishment’, the press – to discourse and textual analysis of what they have said. There is a rich resource readily at our disposal.

Secondly, because it is as close as we have been in the UK to a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission to provide transparency and closure on the intrusive methods of the press over the past twenty years as they have affected vulnerable families. The McCann family and the Dowler family’s evidence provided heart rending accounts.

Thirdly, because of the anticipated and real impacts to political practice as a result of the on-going nature of the inquiry. We have already had a clash between Parliamentary Sovereignty and the Inquiry over the status of Secretary of State Hunt’s place in the schedule of oral testimony. On that it is 1-0 to Lord Leveson. It looks very likely that the evidence of Jeremy Hunt will add further to the debate about the way the bid for BSkyB was handled by the Coalition Government.

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