The thing that struck me most as the media scrambled to report the publication of the Leveson Report was this: no one had really read it.
I mean, of course, really read it. All of it. Some had read one section; others had read another. Some had even read the executive summary.
But none had read – and digested – all of it.
It was impossible to. Even journalists reviewing the final Harry Potter novel had a whole night to stay up reading it.
And that had wizards.
The Leveson Report had no wizards. Instead, it had Richard Desmond. And Popbitch. And those were the best bits.
Since its publication – despite the lack of wizards – I have been saturated in Leveson coverage, and disappointed with most of it. In an attempt to present their opinions as definitive, authoritative, many reporters have bluffed it. And it would have been worse if we didn’t have CTRL+F.
Worse, some publications’ ideological opposition led them to exaggerate some of the report’s suggestions – most notably: that those who didn’t sign up to a regulator would be subject to Ofcom. That is not what the report, it seems to me, says. The Ofcom “backstop” is only recommended as an option if the majority of publications do not sign up to a regulator. So you can be the black sheep if you like – as long as there are enough white ones to satisfy the regulator.
The problem is that the report is bigger than us all – and has far too many grey areas to suit a Grand Narrative.
For and against
There have been two exceptions: in The Guardian Nick Davies – who bears the unenviable (but equally admirable) responsibility for helping to create the momentum behind Leveson with his reporting of the hacking scandal – wrote an insightful piece that was largely positive about the report:
“From a reporter’s point of view, there is no obvious problem with the core of Leveson’s report, his system of “independent self-regulation” … The dark end of the industry may complain that this is all a terrible threat to the free press, echoing the rapist who claims the police are a threat to free love. Why should we fear an independent referee? Why should we not be ashamed of the old Press Complaints Commission which, as the report puts it, “has failed … is not actually a regulator at all … lacks independence … has proved itself to be aligned with the interests of the press”?”
And in The Sunday Times, a multi-authored article told the story of a US investigation which might not be possible under a Leveson-inspired regime because the reporters didn’t know there was a genuine public interest until they had dug into a politician’s deeply personal details.
Between the two, and dozens of others quoting victims on both sides, you got the balance of feeling about Leveson. In short, everyone managed to find problems in his report.
If this was an article and you were the writer, that would probably be a sign that you’d got the balance about right.
The devil in the detail
Surprisingly, Twitter has proved itself much better at pulling out the devil in the detail. Without the pressure to paint the Big Picture, some users have drilled down and stuck to specifics. I used Storify to pull that detail out last week.
My own interest is as tunnel-visioned as any journalist: I want to know how this affects online publishers, and investigative journalists in particular.
Thank heavens for CTRL+F.
Like Davies, I’m particularly interested in the proposals to provide a low-cost alternative to defending libel cases. The significance of this cannot be understated. One of the biggest obstacles to investigative journalism could, potentially, be removed.
That’s a pretty big carrot, if I may say so, Lord Justice Leveson.
But, following that conversation on Twitter, political correspondent Jon Walker found the stick. And it is, potentially, even bigger:
“On the issue of costs, it should equally be open to a claimant to rely on failure by a newspaper to subscribe to the regulator thereby depriving him or her of access to a fair, fast and inexpensive arbitration service. Where that is the case, in the exercise of its discretion, the court could take the view that, even where the defendant is successful, absent unreasonable or vexatious conduct on the part of the claimant, it would be inappropriate for the claimant to be expected to pay the costs incurred in defending the action … it might be possible for the court to go further and order that the claimant’s costs should be met by the defendant”
Or to paraphrase, if someone does not join the regulator: even where the publisher (defendant) is successful the claimant would not pay their costs, and the publisher would.
Now, this is all hypothetical. The Problem With Leveson is that it is only a series of recommendations, suggestions, and scenarios. But it’s worth discussing, nonetheless. It’s what we do with the report, after all, that really matters.