After Leveson: The UK gets an Orwellian Ministry of Truth for real

Cause, an untrue news report. Guardian, though, not NotW

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And nothing carried on happening for years. Anyone remember what finally got this whole thing rolling?

In 2007, following more allegations, a News of the World reporter and a private investigator pleaded guilty to intercepting the voicemail of members of the Royal Family and were jailed. The editor of the paper, Andy Coulson, resigned. The police subsequently launched two enquiries – Weeting, into communications interception, and Elvedon, into payments to the police. A drip of revelations showed cosy and highly questionable relationships between NoTW publisher News International and the police. The mighty Murdoch-run publisher had embarked on a programme of settlements to buy the silence of the victims of blagging – a plan not so dissimilar to the hundreds of gagging contracts and payouts arranged by the National Health Service to buy the silence of whistleblowers – a practice widespread across the public sector, then. By 2009 it was clear that the era of blagging was over.

But the desire to regulate “the mass media” had not diminished. Prime Minister David Cameron had originally supported two inquiries into press behaviour but allowed them to roll into one, which became a giant all-consuming inquiry into the “culture and ethics” of the media, and its relationships with politicians. Having foolishly hired ex-NoTW editor Coulson to work in his offices, Cameron no doubt felt obliged to make a gesture.

Excruciating details of cosy social relations between top politicians and tabloid executives would emerge - but it was all a giant red herring.

Leveson didn’t look promising from the start. High Court judges despise the press to begin with, but the inquiry was rapidly co-opted by privacy activists (supported largely by celebrities and others who had suffered at the hands of the tabloids) who wanted harsh state regulation. Leveson’s report produced what closely resembled an activist’s manual, as the former editor of The Guardian Peter Preston pointed out:

Leveson does what seems suspiciously like a scissors and paste job on the Media Standards Trust's own version of history, which in turn draws heavily on a 12-year-old volume from Tom O'Malley and Clive Soley called Regulating the Press (what it says on the tin). No original thought or research required.

The Media Standards Trust was a campaign group, heavy with academics, that had been spun out of an oddball training company called Common Purpose. Common Purpose sells “leadership courses” to public sector bodies and appears to be highly efficient at extracting money from them; it employs 120 people. Its co-founder Sir David Bell also founded the Media Standards Trust, and became one of Leveson’s six key advisors.

At first the trust had been careful in its language. In 2010, the outfit had [PDF, 600KB] recommended a more aggressive role for a revamped press watchdog, able to undertake its own investigations into press behaviour, while still being "self-regulated". The taboo on state control had yet to be broken.

The trust then gave birth to a specific pressure group pushing for a public inquiry, the secretive and increasingly aggressive Hacked Off. (The two shared an office, and Bell sits on the board of both.) Four members of Hacked Off were present in the room with Labour leader Ed Miliband, his deputy Harriet Harman, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Lord Falconer and the Labour chief whip, as the new regulation proposals were agreed at 2.30am. Representatives from publishers or civil liberties experts were barred. The only Tory in the room was a man who had invited a burglar into his house at 5am one day, to use the toilet.

We now know a little more about who’s behind Hacked Off. One source claims that six of the donors have a net worth of around £1bn, including Lord Sainsbury, Lady Annabel Goldsmith, Arpad Busson and Alain de Botton. Hacked Off? It resembles a club for the angry super rich with grievances against the press.

But there was a problem for Leveson. Every single one of the media practices he heard about was already illegal. Bribing police and the interception of communications are both criminal offences and had been for a long time. Inaccuracy of a sort which could damage is defamation, intrusion is covered by harassment and trespass – they are all civil offences. The British media is, in fact, very heavily regulated already by the existing laws of the land. They just hadn't been enforced, and much of the blame for this lay with politicians rather than journalists.

All this was explained to Leveson by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, [PDF, 820KB] who pointed out:

The fact that these laws were not rigorously enforced is again due to the failure of the police, the interaction of the police and News International - and let's be honest about this, the fact that our politicians have been very, very involved in ways that I think are not sensible with senior News International people.

"If the state regulates the press then the press no longer regulates the state," Hislop added during the inquiry.

When he delivered his four-volume report, Leveson skipped over these relationships; he found no widespread or institutional corruption.

Among his recommendations were several chilling ones. He recommended that legal protections for journalists be revised, so that the police could seize a reporter’s material without a court order. He appeared to acknowledge this would inhibit legitimate journalism – so he recommended setting up a government “whistleblower’s hotline”. Which is fine, if you trust the government to investigate itself or its friends.


From the Hacked Off playbook: The "Dowler" Test?

With no rational case for state regulation to be found, the activists relied on an emotional appeal instead. A motley collection of minor celebrities – many of whom had been caught with their trousers down – would have given Hacked Off the flavour of a Carry On film. But some ordinary victims had genuinely suffered intrusion (the Dowlers) and defamation (the McCanns) – and these were cynically presented as the face of the campaign while the super-rich and the pantsdown celebrities remained in the background.

It was particularly ironic that the Leveson process and concurrent police probes were kickstarted by the "news" that NotW journalists had not just listened to murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's voicemails in 2002 but had actually, purposefully deleted some of them, potentially destroying vital evidence and unbelievably cruelly leading her mother to believe that her missing daughter might still be alive.

Bear in mind this revelation only came after the Guardian's phone-hacking investigation had dragged on for so many years with very little result; long, long after the Motorman investigation had publicly named almost all the UK's major newspapers as having broken laws; and long after the Coulson affair had blown over with almost no damage to the News of the World.

But with the Dowler voicemail-deletion story an outraged nation finally woke up to a narrative which it had considered basically unimportant up to that point, and demanded action to curb the sort of press who would do a thing like that - and such curbs are on their way.

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