There seems to a very different atmosphere at the Leveson Inquiry this week.
Before Christmas – the likes of Piers Morgan, Neville Thurlbeck and so on – were given at times quite abrasive-feeling cross-examinations. Thurlbeck said on his blog that he felt the atmosphere towards tabloid journalists from the inquiry team was sneering.
Earlier this week counsel for the inquiry Robert Jay QC admitted he had privately told Thurlbeck in advance of questioning last month that he thought one of his stories was “nothing but smut” – an admission which does not give the impression he was approaching the exercise with an open mind.
This week the atmosphere between Lord Leveson and the likes of Sun editor Dominic Mohan, and particular the broadsheet editors Chris Blackhurst of the Independent and Lionel Barber of the FT, has been a much more collegiate one.
He is giving the impression less that this is an inquisitorial exercise – but more a collaborative one, trying to come up with a consensus on the way forward.
He said that he agreed that any replacement to the Press Complaints Commission had to be independent – of both government and the press.
He said: “I would be very surprised if government regulation ever even entered my own mind.”
Leveson also spoke about being conscious of the lessons of history – that previously attempts to reform the press had resulted in a brief period of good behaviour followed by another lapse in standards.
A little “tinkering” will not do, he said, and he didn’t want all the time and expense taken on his inquiry to be wasted.
Clearly, Leveson will be making strong recommendations which he expects to be followed. I would be amazed if they aren’t – both by the government and the industry itself.
A consensus appears to be emerging, among the broadsheet and quality titles at least, that radical change to the system of press regulation is needed if public confidence in journalism is to be repaired. This was certainly the view put forward by Barber, Telegraph Group chief executive Murdoch MacLennan, former Telegraph editor Will Lewis and Blackhurst yesterday.
For what it’s worth – I think these are all pretty positive developments.
A bit like the beef industry after the BSE scare – British journalism has to show that it has taken the radical action necessary to restore confidence in its wares.
Personally, I only buy British meat nowadays, because post-BSE I know that our butchers and farmers are probably the best regulated in the world.
But I still have two concerns about the Leveson process.
1. That the views and needs of ordinary journalists could still be forgotten. The formation of the Press Complaints Commission was largely a stitch-up between owners, editors and the government – with no representation on it, or input allowed, from organisations representing rank and file journalists such as the NUJ.
Any new system of regulation must have safeguards in place to ensure that ordinary journalists who come under pressure to act unethically are protected. This could range from being asked by your publisher to put a favourable mention of an advertiser into a story, to being pressured to put unnecessary top-spin on a story.
2. I’m still not convinced that anyone involved in the Leveson Inquiry has any real sympathy, understanding or feel for tabloid journalism. Tabloid journalists may have been the worst offenders, but their titles are also the publications of choice for the vast majority of newspaper readers.
It will be no use to have a journalistic profession which is as ethically pure as the driven snow post Leveson if it results in publications which are so safe and tame that no-one wants to read them.