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Leveson: My Whingers' Charter™ is PERFECT, you impudent MPs

Wikijudge is sorry for nothing, refuses to explain anything

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Brian Leveson, the Wikipedia-quoting judge, stonewalled MPs looking for his opinion on press regulation on Thursday.

Leveson's public inquiry into the "culture and ethics" of British newspapers recommended that legislation be introduced, for the first time in over 300 years, that allows political control over the published word, and the people who publish words.

Remember: the press is already "controlled" by civil and criminal law, which, in the era of super-injunctions and human-rights law, is probably tougher than ever before.

Leveson recommended that Ofcom play an expanded role in regulating the print media as well as broadcasters - but this was thrown out of the window by a private agreement hatched between press-control campaigners and party leaders in March.

That agreement paved the way for exemplary damages to be awarded against publishers who lost libel lawsuits, with the enabling legislation tacked on to the Crime and Courts Act. For now there's a stalemate, with the leading newspapers (bar two low-circulation leftwing broadsheets, The Guardian and The Independent) agreeing on a tough new code that ticks all the Leveson boxes short of direct political control.

The post-Leveson recommendations don't apply to the BBC, which controls 72 per cent of news consumption in the UK, or individual bloggers with fewer than 10 staff (although the European Commission has been urged to license them*).

But what does Leveson himself think of it all?

He was at Westminster because he'd been summoned to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee to "express a view about where we go from here" - which would be helpful, said panel chairman John Whittingdale, since there were so many contradictory claims about "what Leveson intended to deliver".

Leveson painted the committee a picture of an intellectually brilliant figure: a barrister and judge who had worked long hours to finish a mammoth piece of work. That being him, of course. He was responsible for all the parts everyone were thought were a good idea, he implied. The bad bits were interpretation.

Asked to provide his own, Leveson said he didn't want to add or explain what he'd written in his report, because somebody might parse his new statements and cast a new Talmudic interpretation on his nuances. Just read the stone tablets, he said. This posed a problem for MPs, who don't like being told what they should and shouldn't ask.

Leveson justified his conclusions because - having agreed with Conor Burns MP that, yes, press abuses were covered by the law, people didn't have easy access to justice.

"The problem is how a complaint will be generated and how the criminal law can be enforced," he said.

The regional press see the statutory complaints procedure as a Whingers' Charter: the local egos they ruffle on a daily or weekly basis would have an opportunity for vexatious complaints, a kind of compensation cash machine. Repeatedly, Leveson said he didn't think this would add to regional newspapers' costs - but declined to produce evidence for his opinion. He thought a rapid compensation regime for bruised egos was "a wonderful carrot and stick".

Leveson's report had advocated an exemplary damages regime: publications that didn't sign up to his "voluntary" system were exposed to the risk of huge fines. It turned out he hadn't cited any evidence for recommending exemplary damages in the report.

Why not? asked MPs.

Because his conclusion was based on his own expert knowledge of the law: that was all that was needed.

Ahem, said MPs - what about the European ruling that exemplary damages posed a mortal and unfair risk to newspapers?

Well, yes, he'd read that too.

That "dab" of statute

Leveson bridled at the suggestion that he wanted "statutory" regulation, even though he'd called for a "dab of statute", rather than strongly urging for a statute-free future.

MPs couldn't resist raising Leveson's use of scissors and paste, cutting material from Wikipedia without checking it. The Leveson report explains that The Independent newspaper had been co-founded by "Brett Straub". But Straub turned out to be a 25-year-old graduate who had been inserted into several entries on "the encyclopedia anybody can edit" by a mate.

Leveson did concede that the goof had "allowed much sport to be made of me and my report". Apart from that, there were "only a few typos" that were wrong, according to him.

The subject then turned to costs of the complaints system. Here, what Leveson didn’t say was as significant as what he did say. Our learned friend said the new complaints system wouldn’t encourage “damages farming” by vexatious complainants.

Damages farming risk

Damages farming refers to repeatedly hitting a publication through the complaints system and milking it for fines. Leveson didn’t think this would be a problem because he expected the fines would be relatively low, and in his view there would be no financial incentive for complainants to do such a thing. But this misses the point.

The new complaints procedure has a chilling effect because the costs to the publication in dealing with trivial complaints are large, while the cost of complaining is very low. Every regional paper has to deal with oversized local egos: businessmen, councillors, jobsworths who want to buff up their reputations.

The Whingers' Charter provides legal cover for harassing a paper that is publishing perfectly legitimate stories, albeit ones that put the subject in a bad light. Add to that are the single-issue pressure group fanatics, who simply want to shut down opposing views. Through Twitter they have acquired a taste for bullying and long for a legal mechanism to do so.

Political press control has long been an ambition for some factions (Herbert Morrison advocated it in 1947, for example) simply to enforce uniformity of opinion. The Hacked Off campaign is just the latest incarnation of this movement. Leveson is all innocence here, which is hard to take at face value. He cannot publicly acknowledge that some motives for controlling speech have nothing to do with seeking justice, but are actually about nothing more than, er, controlling speech. ®

*Bootnote

Yes, bloggers: you may think you've won an opt-out from the Whingers' Charter if you have fewer than 10 staff or £2m annual turnover. But European directives trump UK law: and you're next.

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