CENSORED: The Mail On Sunday stories Leveson's Law would have barred
02:04 GMT, 2 December 2012
The debate around the Leveson Report has focused on Lord Justice Leveson’s controversial proposal for a new regulator backed by law.
But as Prime Minister David Cameron said in rejecting the idea of statutory-backed regulation, there is a key principle at stake about state interference in the affairs of a free press.
Yet the potential problems with Leveson’s proposals do not end there.
Reforms: Lord Justice Leveson (pictured delivering his verdict) called for sweeping changes in the law to regulate the 'outrageous' behaviour of the press
The report is peppered with recommendations which would fundamentally restrict the ability of the press to report what is happening – and your freedom to learn what our political leaders, police and others are up to.
Leveson talks of the need to defend ethical journalism that serves ‘the public interest’ and to crack down on those journalistic practices which do not.
Yet his report would deny the press the freedom enjoyed by the explosion of publishing on the internet which barely figures in his recommendations.
Landmark: After 16 months of hearings and evidence Lord Justice Leveson poses with his final report
Here are just some of the hidden dangers in the Leveson Report, quoting what Lord Leveson has to say, and what it would mean in reality:
Exposing sources: Volume 4, Chapter 2, 9.11: ‘In the circumstances without pre-judging any conclusion I recommend that the Home office should consider and, if necessary, consult upon (a) whether paragraph 2 (b) of Schedule 1 to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 should be repealed [overturning, in some circumstances, the long-held right of journalists to protect sources].
IN REALITY: Protecting a journalist’s sources is a fundamental principle of investigative reporting. Yet Leveson wants to remove the ‘journalistic exemption’ for material which might be considered ‘stolen’ – which would include most leaked information – and let the police or Financial Services Authority seize it. The irony is that Leveson praises the Daily Telegraph’s exposure of the MPs’ expenses scandal – yet under his proposal, they would have had to hand over the leaked/stolen material and turn in the mole.
The ‘secret’ police: Volume 2, chapter 4, 4.5: ‘I recommend that the term ‘off-the-record briefing’ should be discontinued. The term ‘non-reportable briefing’ should be used to cover a background briefing which is not to be reported.
IN REALITY: Leveson wants an end to off-the-record briefings between the police and the press. He wants information to come only through formal police channels. The proposals, influenced by police chiefs, are supposed to increase ‘transparency’. Yet they are likely to leave the public more in the dark about what the police are doing. Off-the-record briefings are a key tool for both reporters and the police. Making them non-reportable will not mean more police information coming out, but far less – a step towards a secret state.
Silencing the whistleblowers: Volume 2, chapter 8, 8.9: ‘. . . a series of pragmatic solutions need to be devised to maximise the chance that genuine whistleblowers will use confidential avenues in which they may have faith, rather than feel it necessary to break confidences by bringing about much wider public dissemination through disclosures to the media.’
IN REALITY: In other words, police whistleblowers should not go to the press and newspapers should not take any tip-offs from inside the force. Instead, whistleblowers should take their concerns to senior police officers, or to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Yet that sounds like police ‘self-regulation’ of a sort Leveson thinks unfit for the free press. The likely upshot will be fewer whistleblowers coming forward – and less ‘public dissemination’ of important stories.
Regulating democracy Volume 3, chapter 5, 5.31: ‘I recommend that Leaders, Ministers and Front Bench Opposition spokesmen consider publishing: b) on a quarterly basis: details of all meetings with media proprietors, newspaper editors or senior executives, whether in person or through agents on either side, and the fact and general nature of any discussion of media policy issues at those meetings.’
IN REALITY: In response to the Inquiry’s revelations about the ‘cosy’ relationship between the press and political leaders, Leveson proposes to change the entire character of lobby journalism. The proposal effectively to outlaw off-the-record briefings could be disastrous for political reporting. If politicians can speak only on the record, it will surely mean they talk even more in scripted, hollow soundbites. The long struggle to report the truth about politics to the people will be set back. What is more, it seems the new unelected press regulator will also be tasked with holding our elected leaders to account. Some of us thought that was the voters’ role.
Anonymous suspects: Volume 2, chapter 4, 3.3: ‘I think that it should be made abundantly clear that save in exceptional and clearly identified circumstances (for example, where there may be an immediate risk to the public), the names or identifying details of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released to the press or the public.
IN REALITY: No doubt part of the intention here is to prevent a repeat of what happened to Christopher Jefferies, landlord of murdered Joanna Yeates, who was monstered by newspapers when arrested. But there have been countless other cases where the role of the press in identifying those arrested or suspected of serious crimes has been crucial in informing the public, aiding the police and keeping the criminal justice process open to scrutiny.
When the editors of Britain’s national newspapers meet with culture secretary Maria Miller on Tuesday, it will be their first opportunity to thrash out the practicalities of the Leveson Report.
As well as standing firm against statutory-backed regulation, they should ensure our political leaders are aware of the dangers hidden away behind the report’s headlines and their implications for the freedom of the press that is the lifeblood of a democratic society.