Quiet levity at ♯Leveson, and some thoughts on the film version of the Inquiry for Robert Redford’s scriptwriter

Leveson’s subtle cerebral swordsman, Robert Jay QC:
is he Hollywood material?

Robert Redford in 1976, playing
the Watergate reporter-hero
Bob Woodward.
Photograph: collectorsshangri-la.com

Nowhere in the commentary about the winding down last week of Part 1 of the Leveson Inquiry into press practices have we seen the lines we expected some old print publication or other to throw in for leavening. Only in the blogosphere have we found mentions, in this context, of …

You cannot hope to bribe or twist

The honest British journalist

But seeing what the man will do

Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

There are minor variations of those four lines in circulation. They are the wittiest and best-loved summing-up in verse of the British tradition of journalism – at its best, still the world’s finest, in our opinion, which might have been influenced by sprinkling with  baptismal water in this branch of the craft. Long before then, the poem was on a page of a school poetry textbook to which some of us, at post-Gutenberg, often turned for relief from galumphing deconstructions of poems unfortunate enough to have been put on the syllabus.

Will Robert Redford find a way to include Humbert Wolfe’s 1920s quatrain in his script — if there is any substance in the speculation about him giving Leveson and the phone hacking scandal the Hollywood treatment? A Redford film about the Inquiry — showing us what an outsider makes of the Icelandic saga it has become — could be a treat. A clip from a BBC interview with the actor-director in April is irresistible. His tone becomes wondering, almost awed, answering a question about his impressions on a first visit to London for 30 years:

I come here and I watch the Leveson Inquiry. And whatever’s going on — I’m sure there’s some savage stuff going on — but it’s done in such a dignified, calm, graceful way that I think, gee! this is really fascinating. Somebody’s killing somebody, here, but you’d never know it.

Italian-born Humbert Wolfe
wrote the most famous poem
about British journalism.
Photograph: National Portrait Gallery

The poet Humbert Wolfe also had a stranger’s acute powers of observation. He was born in Milan. His mother started life as Consuela Terraccini. His pen strokes captured the journalism and journalists of his adopted country while he worked at a day job in its civil service.

But even if one of Redford’s most famous roles was in All the President’s Men (1976) — playing the Woodward half of Watergate’s heroic ‘Woodstein’ partnership at The Washington Post — it is not the British press but the lawyers and gracious conventions of British law in action that captivated him. At a press conference on the same trip, a reporter asked if he was watching the proceedings and ‘hoping for the return of proper investigative journalism’ – following his complaints elsewhere about the increasing ‘triviality of media’. He replied:

I’ve been very impressed with the dignity and elegance with which the process has gone forward. People take their time speaking. And in my country, things have become so accelerated and … so hyped up. … It’s sad for me to see because it blurs this more important part, which is, where are we going to find the truth? The democratisation of the internet has actually made truth harder to find — along with its positives.

Somehow, that vital qualification of his disappointment with democracy on the net was dropped from the Independent’s report of his remarks, with no indication of any omission. That paper, like the other broadsheets, never stops copying King Canute straining to command the sea to roll backwards – in its case, the evil digital sea of change obliging the 4th Estate to share its megaphone with new rivals.

Actually, Lord Justice Leveson and his chief counsel for the hearings, Robert Jay, have often struck post-Gutenberg as a brilliant pairing. In their uncannily well-coordinated forensic interrogation, they function like a legal Woodstein – even if not technically working as partners but in their distinct and separate roles. The background to their bravura performance could be an engaging part of the story, whenever Redford or someone else digs into it.

Admittedly, that is most likely to be a someone else – since the cinema only rarely conveys intellectual, as opposed to emotional, subtlety and complexity. Just as nearly every film ever made about the lives of artists and writers has failed to illuminate the mechanisms of their creativity, let alone uncover its secrets, there seems little chance of the cinema tackling judicial tactics and strategising of the highest sophistication.

Unless the presiding judge or some other senior member of the Inquiry’s legal team writes a completely frank account of its hidden dramas, there is just as little hope of our learning any details of the hearings’ behind-the-scenes manoeuvring – the pressure from vengeful old 4th Estate tigers distraught about the prospect of their de-clawing; the wily manipulations of politicians. We can only discern their effects – in, for instance, the ever more drawn and tired face and hoarse voice of Leveson LJ, in the concluding weeks of Part 1.

Would a Redford film explain the sort of thing keeping us hugely amused at post-Gutenberg? – the private joke we read into the judge thanking ‘the press who have reported on the inquiry, for keeping everybody informed,’ which made broadsheet headlines. Taking what he said strictly at face value (Lord Justice Leveson ends Inquiry by thanking journalists), those news reports missed his point entirely. To grasp what Leveson LJ was actually saying, you would have to know about this exchange between him and the admirably non-partisan Peter Oborne, chief political commentator at The Telegraph — and by far the most enlightening and accurate senior journalist testifying at the Inquiry:

P.O. : … [T]he reason why rival newspaper groups were unwilling to report phone hacking […] It’s only my views as an informed spectator, that … there was a reluctance of one newspaper group to embarrass another.

LJL : … If that is so, is that inevitable?

P.O. : I don’t know if it’s inevitable or not, but it has been a very, very — it has been a feature … [A]nd I think it’s been weakened a little bit, or even quite a lot, by blogs, and Private Eye has played a fantastically important cleansing function in the last 30 or 40 years. […M]aterial which has not found its way into mainstream publications has found its way into Private Eye.

LJL : Private Eye has also been publishing during the course of this Inquiry what the newspapers don’t publish. In other words, they’ve gone through a number of stories and said, “Actually, it’s rather interesting that this story appeared in this paper but it didn’t cover another aspect.”

Had the judge not been teasing huffy 4th-Estaters for their selective and misleading reporting on his hearings, he would have thanked all reporters and commenters – including bloggers, whose legitimacy and importance he has scrupulously underlined.

On that subject, we have a message for Robert Redford.  It is only because of the internet’s democratisation of the media that post-Gutenberg learnt that he acknowledged the constructive aspects of the rise of the net, even as he blamed it for the growing scarcity of good traditional journalism. As we have already noted in this entry, The Independent only printed the portion of his remarks that suits its agenda. But, thanks not only to a BBC video but a YouTube clip from his London press conference, we could all watch him speak his unedited thoughts and interpret them for ourselves.

And that is just one more tiny scrap confirming that expand and include; don’t compress and exclude should be the principle directing anyone powerful who has a say in shaping the media’s future – for reasons we recently explained 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.