Leveson, the press, and un-free corporate interests

Leveson, the press, and un-free corporate interests

The Leveson report has been a long time coming. Since 1949 there have been five inquiries into the operation of the press in Britain. On each occasion, we have heard the same kind of outcry against independent scrutiny from media barons, a narrow band of newspaper pundits and politicians who serve the rich and powerful.

Over the past week those same forces have been working hard to pre-trash Leveson, to portray anything other than toothless self-regulation as a tyrannical blight on freedom of expression, and to equate press freedom falsely with the continued dominance of their own corporate self-interest.

By contrast, the Leveson Report itself is thorough, sensible and cautious. What it unveils is not just culpable criminality within particular media organisations, but a culture of contempt, bullying and unaccountability within the industry. As someone who values, respects and practices journalism, the realities the inquiry describes disturb me enormously.

Leveson’s key recommendation offers at least part of the way forward. A civic co-regulatory body and code of conduct, both of which will b independent of government and owners, underpinned by statute, and framed within a First Amendment-style law to protect the freedom of the press, is long overdue.

This is in no way an example of, or precursor to, ‘state control’. It is a system to ensure that massive abuse of power is checked by democratic, accountable and independent means.

The other key measures needed are a conscience clause in contracts of employment for journalists, which Leveson rightly and thankfully recommends, and action to address the shocking imbalance and lack of plurality in UK newspaper ownership – emblemised by News International’s 35.15 per cent share of the market.

The absence of concrete attention to newspaper ownership, and recommendations to address it, is surely the largest weakness of the new report. An over-concentration of corporate power and wealth within the press is the biggest single threat to a diverse, healthy, accountable and democratic industry. Setting up independent newspaper trusts, along with tough restrictions on monopolies, would be an important way forward in this area.

But the biggest concern right now is that, despite volumes of rhetoric and millions of pounds spent on an independent enquiry, the government looks set to ignore or water-down beyond recognition its most important conclusions. It should not be allowed to get away with this.

* The Leveson Inquiry report and recommendations on the culture, practice and ethics of the press can be read in full and in executive summary here: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/about/the-report/

* Press reformers back Leveson's call for independent scrutiny: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17498

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. As well as working for church agencies and within adult theological education, he has been a practicing professional journalist, writer, and member of the National Union of Journalists since 1982.

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