How high ambition hobbled Lord Justice Leveson’s chance to be a shining model for guiding media evolution and put new muscles on democracy
In social situations I try and leave telling people I am a lawyer to the end. I would much rather they see me first as an innovator, explorer, change agent, problem solver or entrepreneur.
— excerpt from article by Geoff Wild in the Law Gazette, selected for Private Eye‘s ‘Pseuds Corner,’ 14 December 2012
Why has Lord Justice Leveson turned against free speech on the net, after wisely refraining from doing any such thing during his hearings on press ethics and practices? His report and the aftermath of its publication, subjects of our last two entries in this blog, confirmed our grimmest expectations. The header of a post in May actually read:
Though honest, incisive journalists and editors of the highest rank justified — at the Leveson hearings — the public’s perception of the dangers of a fact-bending partisan press, the Leveson report said:
We want the news in the press to be true and accurate; we do not want to be misled or lied to. But we want, or are content for, it to be presented in a partisan way. We want a measure of balance and context, but we also want a perspective. We want the truth, but we understand that there are many versions of the truth, and incompleteness in all versions. […] [‘F]act’ and ‘comment’ […] are by no means distinct and watertight categories. The very act of describing a fact is to comment on it. All forms of recording are selective.
As we interpret that, hair standing on end, the judge now fully supports newspapers and proprietors of the likes of Rupert Murdoch in their wish to protect their power base — no matter what damage partisanship does to the presentation of the truth. In our May post in this spot, quoting the Leveson testimony of Alastair Campbell, the famously Machiavellian political adviser to Tony Blair who deeply regrets his own manipulations, we explained:
Why is the press so desperate to convince us that media partisanship is a good thing? Because, if the public approves of the press siding with particular political leaders and parties — instead of preferring press impartiality, as it actually does, at present – the 4th Estate can continue to assume king-making powers.
Politicians will continue to put themselves at the beck and call of newspaper proprietors and editors in the hope of winning their nominations in elections. As Campbell pointed out yesterday, Murdoch’s is not the only press fiefdom involved in […] ‘a co-dependent relationship between politicians and the media’.
And then, just as we feared in early summer, in remarks made earlier this month, the judge has disappointed everyone who understands the internet as our best hope of accelerating and refining democracy — the steady trend across centuries, in the world’s free societies, towards making one human being more fully the equal of another in, above all, the right to unfettered expression.
Where did he go wrong?
It is clear that this happened at the very beginning.
The judge’s big mistake was in announcing at the start of his excavation into press misbehaviour that he did not want his recommendations for improvement to gather ‘dust on an academic’s shelf’ — along with the reports of several failed 20th-century attempts at tackling the job he was handed by David Cameron in 2011.
If Lord Justice Leveson only knew that he stood no chance of being a force for the good if he showed how much he cared about putting his ideas into practice.
This is because turning his conclusions into policy is the work of politicians. A politician sees getting re-elected as his or her most important duty. Politicians still believe that the support of the famous names in the newspaper business is crucial to winning elections — in spite of the internet’s destruction of the financial viability of these mouthpieces and readers’ growing reliance on other, net-based sources of information.
If only #Leveson LJ — who so impressed many of us watching the hearings with his intellectual rigour, meticulousness, and scrupulous disinterestedness — could have realised that in revealing that his supreme aim was to make his mark on history, he had fallen into the role of the hapless innocent in fairy tales who blindly promises the evil wizard his first-born child tomorrow, in exchange for magic that lets him slay dragons today.
During Tony Blair’s testimony at the hearings in late May, the judge implored the ex-prime minister to help him make his dream come true. What this lofty witness said proved that politicians fear falling out with powerful old print media to an unimaginable degree — as France 24 reported:
‘With any of these big media groups, you fall out with them and you watch out, because it is literally relentless and unremitting once that happens,’ Blair, looking tanned and smart in a navy suit and white shirt, told the Leveson inquiry.
‘My view is that that is what creates this situation in which these media people get a power in the system that is unhealthy and which I felt, throughout my time, uncomfortable with. I took the strategic decision to manage this and not confront it but the power of it is indisputable.’
What should the judge have concluded, from that remarkable, quaking confession of intimidation? That committing himself to being steered by politicians would mean losing his ability to offer wise, objective counsel about rules for fair combat in the evolutionary struggle between fading old media and their digital successors.
Which is how the Leveson Inquiry shows every sign of sinking ever-deeper into the muck of political bargaining and infighting in which politicians — now the main actors — will use every delaying tactic they can think of to ensure that the Inquiry’s clear demonstration of what needs to be repaired, discarded and replaced in British media comes to naught.
But then, isn’t the point of the Law to ensure that the behaviour of people and institutions conforms to rules and standards wrought from yesterday’s ideas? In that sense, lawyers and judges are innately, unavoidably, conservative — preoccupied with conserving the values of the past until forced to do otherwise.
So of course Lord Justice Leveson’s speeches in Australia earlier this month amounted to threatening the internet, or mass communication’s future, to please his new friends — the fogeys of the old print press.
Forget the debates now droning on about choices for self-regulation by the press, with or without statutory support. The judge has become the chief protector and champion of that same institution he seemed bent on purging, sanitising, and returning to the marvellous ideal of an incorruptible and deeply moral 4th Estate, mere months ago.
Will sic transit gloria do, for a Christmas message?