How Lord Justice #Leveson let down everyone who cares about the practice of journalism ‘without fear or favour’

Partisan press = blinkered view + distorted facts photograph:

Partisan press = blinkered vision + distorted facts
Reichenau Island, 2011, by

A few days ago, The New York Times columnist David Brooks, arguing from first principles, made the case against a partisan press incontrovertibly. Like all the best essayists, he did this by also constructing the best possible case for the opposing side, listing all the disadvantages of detachment.

That was not long after a Leeds scholar, Paul Wragg – speaking at a workshop of Oxford’s Foundation for Law, Justice and Society on the 12th of April –  expressed his dismay at Lord Justice Leveson’s failure, in his report, to explain or justify adequately his support of press partisanship. This, said Wragg, was inconsistent with the judge’s own repeated reminders of his mission — to find ways to stop the  ‘real harm caused to real people’ resulting from the ‘cultural indifference to individual privacy and dignity’ on the part of the British press.

This blog’s worst fears for the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and behaviour were expressed in a headline last May:

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th estate?

We had not quite given up hope before our earlier blog entry on the same subject, in February, when we had begun to sense — but not believe — the drift of the judge’s sentiments on partisanship, from his remarks during the hearings:

Leveson hearings: can a “blind and unreasoning” or partisan press censoring citizen-journalists be good for democracy?

We are dismayed by the proof that our pessimism was so fully justified. At the Inquiry’s inception, a speech by the Lord Chief Justice – who selected Leveson LJ for the job – had given us every reason to hope for a diametrically opposite outcome:

Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?

Everyone should have a chance to weigh what David Brooks said about the virtues of detachment – of non-partisan journalism:

… The detached writer also starts with a worldview. If you don’t have a philosophic worldview, your essays won’t even rise to the status of being wrong. They won’t be anything.

But the detached writer wants to be a few steps away from the partisans. She is progressive but not Democratic, conservative but not Republican. She fears the team mentality will blinker her views. She wants to remain mentally independent because she sees politics as a competition between partial truths, and she wants the liberty to find the proper balance between them, issue by issue.

The detached writer believes that writing is more like teaching than activism. Her essays are generally not about winning short-term influence. (Realistically, how many times can an outside writer shape the short-term strategies of the insider politicians?) She would rather have an impact upstream, shaping people’s perceptions of underlying reality and hoping that she can provide a context in which other people can think. She sometimes gets passionate about her views, but she distrusts her passions. She takes notes with emotion, but aims to write with a regulated sobriety.

There are trade-offs, no matter what spot on the continuum you ultimately choose. The engaged writer enjoys a tight community and a powerful sense of commitment. The detached writer enjoys more freedom and objectivity. The engaged writer emphasizes loyalty, while the detached writer emphasizes honesty. At his worst, the engaged writer slips into rabid extremism and simple-minded brutalism. At her worst, the detached writer slips into a sanguine, pox-on-all-your-houses complacency and an unearned sense of superiority. The engaged writer might become predictable. The detached writer might become irrelevant, ignored at both ends.

These days most writers land on the engaged side of the continuum. Look at most think tanks. They used to look like detached quasi universities; now some are more like rapid response teams for their partisan masters. If you ever want to get a political appointment, you have to be engaged, working on political campaigns and serving the team.

But I would still urge you to slide over toward the detached side of the scale. First, there is the matter of mental hygiene. You may think you can become a political partisan without becoming rigid and stale, and we all know people who achieve this, but the risk is high.

Engaged writers gravitate toward topics where they can do the most damage to the other side. These are topics where the battle lines are clearly drawn, not topics where there is a great deal of uncertainty. Engaged writers develop a talent for muzzle velocity, not curiosity. Just as in life, our manners end up dictating our morals. So, in writing our prose, styles end up shaping our mentalities. If you write in a way that suggests combative certitude, you may gradually smother the inner chaos that will be the source of lifelong freshness and creativity.

Also, detached writers have more realistic goals. Detached writers generally understand that they are not going to succeed in telling people what to think. It is enough to prod people to think …

[ … Read the whole column here … ]

Blogging shakes off its bastard status as the Leveson Inquiry legitimises non-professional, post-print media

Cartoon by an unknown artist at an exhibition, King’s Cross, London, 24 March 2012
Photograph by Katy Stoddard

A journalist giving evidence at the Leveson Inquiry on 23 May answered questions from the lead counsel, Robert Jay, QC, about his written submission – until the Bench intervened: 

Q.  … Can I ask you … about the arrangements or the negotiations with politicians which you say can become very convoluted. …

A. … I do find it easier not to have politicians as personal friends.  …

Q.  In the context of the symbiotic relationship you go on to describe?

A.  Yes.  I mean, it is like ticks and sheep, isn’t it?  One can’t exist without the other.

Q.  …  You might become parti pris or become just a little too understanding.  It’s obviously those vices which you carefully eschew.  Is that fair?

A.  Yeah, I mean I don’t want to set myself up as some sort of absolute prig here.  … I find it easier and cleaner to have a disconnection, that’s all … [A]nd the only justification, I think, for our existence, is that we act on behalf of the citizen.  We don’t act on behalf of the powerful or the vested interest.

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON:  Nobody will think you’re a prig, Mr Paxman, having just compared yourself to a tick.

Jeremy Paxman at the Leveson hearings

In 1999, after Jerri FitzGerald – the only doctor in a 41-person team on a research expedition to the South Pole – discovered a lump in her breast, she ‘performed a biopsy on herself with the help of non-medical staff, who practised using needles on a raw chicken.’

Everyone expecting courageous, detached professionalism in another sphere from newspapers covering the Leveson Inquiry into press standards and practices has been sorely disappointed. The most important story emerging from the hearings – confirmation of judicial sanction for members of the public who choose to blog, and for an unprecedented range of sources of information for voters seeking to make good voting decisions – is being concealed through a nearly exclusive focus on the implications for David Cameron’s government of sensational revelations from the phone hacking scandal.

All reporting on the Leveson proceedings by the press has been highly selective. Readers have even been deprived of such fun as the judge’s gentle takedown of the BBC’s best-known inquisitor on politics – the suave and debonair TV journalist Jeremy Paxman – recorded in our epigraph.

Reporting by traditional media about the changed status of blogging is non-existent, scant or distorted – sometimes gravely. Andrew Marr, one of the most respected political commentators in Britain, had this exchange with the Inquiry’s chief interrogator, Robert Jay:

Q.  …  [A]n article from The Guardian,  11 October 2010, … reports you as dismissing bloggers as “inadequate, pimpled and single” and citizen journalism as “the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night”. … Is that comment about … the tone and quality of some of the online debate, or is it a more fundamental criticism of bloggers as being detrimental to the good name of journalism?

A.  …[I]t’s partly a symptom of my deadly weakness for a vivid phrase.  It was a comment really aimed at the enormous amount of anger and vituperation that seemed to me to be swilling around parts of the Internet, most of it anonymous.  I was probably a bit out of date even if I was saying that. Now, you know, you look around and a lot of the most influential highly respected political commentators aren’t newspaper journalists, actually, they are bloggers.

In The Guardian, Dan Sabbagh supplied a master-class in biased reporting in a news story radically watering down Marr’s testimony about the value of political commentary by bloggers:

Lord Justice Leveson has queried whether bloggers would have to be brought in a revised system of press regulation, as he heard evidence from Andrew Marr about the growing power of political websites.

The BBC journalist and politics show presenter said that ConservativeHome and other sites are “now as influential as any newspaper” and any new system of regulation proposed by the judge “would have to include those alongside newspapers”.

Whereas the Sabbagh report had the judge merely reflecting ‘rhetorically’ on ‘the boundaries of regulation’ – meaning the degree to which bloggers would be treated as part of the 4th Estate – anyone paying close attention would have heard Lord Justice Leveson agonise about a ‘nightmarish’ task of a very different sort. What he said was clearly predicated on bloggers and citizen journalists not being be excluded from any new system of press regulation. His dilemma, he explained, lay in deciding exactly who should be required to redress complaints about journalistic misbehaviour in that new system – that is, wrongdoing not just by those traditionally considered journalists but by anyone practising journalism.

The judge must wrestle with the distinction within the blogosphere between those whose writing amounts to comments for the sake of commenting, versus ‘those that are in the course of — if you like, a trade or business.’ Or, as he later rephrased that division, bloggers and other newcomers who are ‘simply commenting and those who are doing more and getting towards the business end of journalism.’

It is money changing hands for commentary that is, for him, the key point of difference between traditional and non-traditional journalists – not levels of expertise, or indeed any intrinsic entitlement to comment.

Andrew Marr at the Leveson hearings

In another fascinating interlude in that day’s testimony, Andrew Marr noted – earlier – that a special category of political blogger had appeared on the scene:

I think what the world of the influential political blogger has done is introduced a new player into the system who isn’t the full-time professional journalist with a press card working at Westminster under an editor and isn’t a politician, but is somewhere between the two.  A lot of these people are card carrying party members.  […]  They have particularly strong contacts with their side.  And therefore you can’t treat them as old-fashioned journalists under old-fashioned journalistic codes …

Then, with commendable honesty, he added that newspapers had begun to employ these professionally partisan political bloggers – if not mentioning what post-Gutenberg has in recent posts about the ‘old-fashioned’ press now claiming partisanship as a basic right of a free press.  Paid political bloggers, he said, are

an  influential new thing.  I mean, even a lot of the papers are picking people up and using them as commentators now. I think the old distinction between a political player and would-be professional journalist is breaking down, and any system which is built upon the old system will quickly look out of date as well.

On Dan Sabbagh’s keyboard, that testimony was conspicuously tweaked, like the rest of his report – and made no mention of newspapers bringing spin-doctors into the fold:

Marr said that political bloggers were often “card-carrying party members” often with “strong contacts with their side”, which meant that they could not be treated as “old-fashioned journalists” but were nevertheless increasingly significant.

What a good thing it is that no member of the Inquiry’s outstanding legal team misses a beat.

There was, for instance, the moment when Marr told the presiding judge that the ‘buy-in from the editors and the journalists who are going to be part of it,’ would be critical to the success of any new system of regulation introduced.’ He emphasised that ‘you need them to be plugged in … enthusiastically and willingly so.’

This conversational minuet ensued:

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON:  In relation to buy-in, of course, if I’m going to recommend any system, it has to be a system that everybody has to buy into.

A.  Yes.

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON:  It will only have a chance of working if it works for the press, it works for the public as well.

A.  Mm.

… Not for ages has anything in public life offered the satisfaction of seeing right being done to remotely the same degree.

Memo to Walter Bagehot, ex-editor, The Economist: did you really mean to defend a partisan press, the most insidious enemy of democracy?

We cannot let the reign of the 4th Estate end in nothing but frayed and faded ideals. Composition by Tricia Meynell.

6 May 2012

to: ghost of W. Bagehot, Esq., editor, The Economist, 1860-77

from: post-Gutenberg, a 21st-century blog

Sir: this blog is not in the habit of addressing spectres. We are not even sure we believe in ghosts. But if that isn’t a phantom you writing the column titled ‘Bagehot’, and the ‘Bagehot’s Notebook’ blog for your old paper in St. James’s Street, then someone is spouting a stunningly unpersuasive argument in your name.

Let us assume that you do exist. This somehow seems friendlier in the age of social media – and we are thrilled by the possibility of a ghost going to the trouble of broadcasting his opinions.

Are spectral attention spans long or short? We cannot decide, so will make our response easy to scan.

Please refer to your post ten days ago: ‘Are British newspapers a menace to democracy?‘:

• Partisanship in the 4th Estate. Why do you defend a partisan press when impartiality has been the noblest aspiration of the 4th Estate – and its American equivalent? See this list of principles in The Elements of Journalism, quoted here a few weeks ago:

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.


4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.

5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power. …

And, as the judge presiding over the Leveson Inquiry explained as its purpose, at the start of the proceedings,

…[A]ny failure of the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry therefore may be one simple question – who guards the guardians?

• Democracies need unbiased facts. Have you forgotten that a democracy is virtually pointless without disseminators of facts who can give voters the truth – the chance to get as close as possible to factual completeness — to help them make the best decisions in elections and referendums? That is why – as you know — the 4th Estate has long been granted such special privileges as access to lofty authorities, the right to protect sources of information, etc..

You seem to be under the illusion that whether the press is good or bad for democracy turns on how the media direct and manipulate their audiences’ opinions about voting choices — rather than on the reliability of the facts about the world that they serve up.

• If there is any justification for a partisan press, you haven’t supplied it. You said, about journalism that takes sides:

Newspaper campaigns clearly influence policy-making. […]  But arguably their greatest day-to-day influence is indirect. […] Britain is an outlier […] In lots of European countries politics encompasses angry extremes, with the hard-right and far-left attracting hefty votes. By contrast, newspapers in such countries are often small-circulation, centrist, and prim. Britain does things the other way round. Partly because of first-past-the-post voting, the big parties cluster at the political centre. The brass-band blare of dissent comes from a fiercely partisan press. 

About that, one commenter (not anyone we know) expressed the essence of our reaction at post-Gutenberg:


April 27th, 06:13

Bagehot repeats the old trope that British newspapers are extreme and therefore its politics is moderate whereas in Europe politics is extreme because the media is moderate. Does anyone seriously buy this argument. That the nature of the press determines the nature of politics. And that politics is opposite to the press. And that you can only have extreme and vicious press or moderate centrist press. What a piece of nonsense.

If Konker is mistaken and that isn’t nonsense, then – to justify such an exotic argument – why not cite a respected political scientist? Or offer your readers a hyper-link to a table with statistics for European voting patterns? Link to a book or study that supports those statements?

When you say, ‘lots of European countries’ — with surpassing vagueness — which ones are you referring to? To the best of our knowledge, the largest, France and Germany, have big political parties clustered at the centre. Just like Britain. So? … Walter! The outlines of your life mention your pride in writing about politics and economics with scientific precision. Science = substantiation. Since you know how to blog, you can surely use these tools that think with strings of 1s and 0s to share evidence with us? You could put a URL or two into your texts — yes?

Sorry, this argument sounds like something you might say at the merry end of an evening at your club. (Spectres don’t haunt those, do you?)

• The preferences and political agenda of even a free press are not the most important forces in a democracy. It is the will of the people that matters most. Even press freedom is about the people, and not the press – as the Lord Chief Justice said in a speech he gave just before the formal proceedings of the Leveson Inquiry began (words to which the press largely played deaf). He quoted a famous statement in 1762 by the reformer and political agitator, John Wilkes:

“The liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country”.

We embrace that statement. The significance of what John Wilkes said was not, as those connected with the media sometimes suggest, that the statement is upholding the liberty of the press. […] It is the birthright of the citizen that the press should be independent.

We speak of ‘media’ because they represent channels for expressing the opinions and feelings of the people. Newspapers are not goads, nor licensed wielders of carrots and sticks. Read Paul Johnson on the rise of democracy in 19th-century Europe. ‘Towards the end of the 1820s, the world moved a decisive stage nearer the democratic age,’ he has written, listing among the chief factors and trends behind that, the spread of literacy, and ‘huge increase in the number and circulation of newspapers.’ In Britain, it was not just newspapers through which public sentiment was expressed:

… [T]he demand for fundamental reform was growing again. One reliable index of political intensity is the number of political prints produced, which can be gauged from the vast stocks held in the British Library. Artists and print sellers mirrored middle-class opinion …

• Your own readers do not want a partisan press. If the results of this poll running on your own site since last July can be trusted, 73 per cent of 2,686 of them have voted ‘Yes’ in reply to: ‘Some commentators welcome the rise of a partisan press […S]hould respectable news organisations strive to be fair and balanced?’

• Partisan reporters on politics cannot do their jobs properly. You end your reflection on whether British newspapers undermine democracy by saying,

Journalists and politicians can never be truly friends. Lowly reporters and MPs always knew this: given a big enough story, each will turn on the other.

Really? If that were true, why did staff journalists on the Whitehall beat fail to get this century’s biggest scoops in politics — and leave the job to outsiders, the freelances Heather Brooke and Nick Davies, as this blog recorded last week.

… There’s a beard-scratcher for you, old bean!


[ More on this subject: 

Will Leveson end blessing press partisanship and slamming the brakes on the rise of new media and the 5th Estate? ]