The 2012 Woolly Days media person of the year is Brian Leveson. Leveson is a jurist not a journalist but his impact on journalism and the world of media this year has been profound.
The year 2012 will not go down as a great year for the world’s media. While the world’s business-as-usual pattern of production and consumption sees it barrelling down a path towards a 4 degree increase in temperature by 2100, the focus of most media attention is ever increasingly the deeply superficial.
Commercial media have always fulfilled two purposes: to make money and to inform but it is the profit imperative which is winning clearly at the moment. The large multi-national conglomerates that own media stock look no further than the bottom line when it comes to meeting deadlines. Issues like news values and ethics are a poor second if there is no payback. Meanwhile shareholder disquiet of falling ratings or circulations can be managed quarter to quarter by cost cutting and doing more with less. There is as a result according to Michael Mandel, a “shift in journalistic employment to non-traditional industries, an increased in the self-employed, a delayering of journalism, and perhaps lower pay.”
Brian Leveson admitted as much on his recent visit to Melbourne. The closure of a large number of newspapers has reduced the extent to which local government, health, education and the courts can be held to account. “Society will be less well served as a result”, he said. Yet Leveson was aware that even if journalism jobs are becoming diffused and of less value, the media they serve remain powerful players as editorialists, chroniclers, sensemakers, muckrakers and watchdogs.
Their contract with the public to perform these roles is based on trust. The one-to-many broadcast model of television and the major papers ensured they always had the microphone to drown dissent. The internet and web2.0 changed all that and disapproval can amplify virally if compelling enough. The web further undermined the media’s privileged modus operandi by allowing a multiplicity of blog voices harvesting free online content often with more sagacity and insight than the journalists. Social media has forced big media to become more humble in their dealings with the public they profess to “serve”.
There remains pockets of strong resistance, with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp leading the counter-assault. This old fashioned news and entertainment empire (one of the few not owned by a non-news company) remains convinced it does not need to answer its critics. China is a rare failure but In the US, Fox News is highly successful while his 2011 plan to buy the 60.9 percent of British cable company BSkyB it did not own was just a whisker away from being successful when undone by fine journalism.
Revelations by the Guardian journalist Nick Davies and his editor Alan Rusbridger brought the sordid hacking affair to light. The shadowy practices not only showed the need for profit greatly exceeded all other motives but described the contempt News had for its own audience. With the weight of evidence growing Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Justice Leveson in June 2011 to investigate the culture, practices and ethics of the British press as well as the dealings between the press, politicians and the police.
As testimony followed testimony, it was clear much was rotten in Murdoch’s hamlet. It wasn’t just the attitude that privacy was for paedo’s as former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan espoused, it was the scene of serious crime. As November 2012, there had been 90 arrests on charges of interception of mobile phone messages, payment to public officials, data intrusion. The Inquiry would expose potentially corrupt dealings between senior members of the media, political parties and the police.
In nearly nine months of oral hearings, almost all available to transcript or watch online, involving 337 witnesses and 300 statements, the Inquiry became “the most public and most concentrated look at the press” Britain had ever seen. It enormous resonance not only in Britain but wherever British legal, ethical and press traditions operate, such as Australia. The numerous celebrities who portrayed themselves as “fair game” to an uncaring media, added to the notoriety of the charges. Australian media were quick to distance themselves from the phone hacking but there but for the grace of god go they at any lengths for a story.
With such a wide ranging brief, Leveson’s Inquiry had important things to say about plurality of ownership, privacy laws, and regulation of the press, all of which got the media companies quivering in their boots. Leveson was at pains to stress his inquiry was not an attack on press freedom. However, he said, with rights came responsibilities and all too often the press has simply ignored them. Neither the press or the press council ever launched investigations into allegations of serious misdoings such as breaches of data protection or trade in private and confidential information. Indeed when the phone hacking issue was raised, police executing a warrant were driven off the News of the World premises while the Press Complaints Commission criticised the Guardian for publishing the results of their investigations into the cover-up.
In November 2012 Leveson released his findings in a 2000 page report and 48-page executive summary. Leveson proposed an independent replacement for the Press Complaints Commission which he said had no regulatory powers. It would have a dual role of promoting high standards of journalism while protecting the role of the individual. The new body would not include serving editors or politicians and it could impose fines and direct the appearance of corrections.
Leveson said participation needed to be universal for the body to be properly funded and succeed in its purpose. Those that declined to be involved would forfeit the right to the in-built arbitration process and therefore could not claim costs of any civil action even if they won because they had refused the cheaper route to justice. Leveson said such a body would not regulate the press. He did not advocate prior restraint (a point of honour with the British press since Milton’s Areopagitica in 1644). He acknowledged how the important role media plays in society “as a critical witness of events” and accepted that media and journalists have several necessary privileges under the law as “one of the true safeguards of our democracy”. Leveson said his legislation would in fact enshrine “for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press”.
However, the media did not see it that way. Every newspaper in Britain except the Guardian rushed to denounce Leveson’s key recommendation. Biggest selling paper The Sun said it was “deeply alarmed” by the prospect of “State control of newspapers.” “Such a law could allow State officials to walk into papers like The Sun and censor stories,” it said. The Express also worried about political aprons: “To put politicians in ultimate regulatory control of newspapers and then expect them never to seek to use that power to constrain criticism or scrutiny is to place in them a degree of trust they frankly do not deserve.”
Prime Minister David Cameron – himself implicated by the evidence of the over-close relationship between press and politics – plumped for the press over Leveson. He expressed his reservations over the legislation for the independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body. “For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land,” Cameron said. “We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.”
High profile hacking victims such as JK Rowling expressed dismay at Cameron’s speech. “"Having taken David Cameron's assurances in good faith at the outset of the inquiry he set up, I am merely one among many who feel duped and angry in its wake," she said. The Hacked Off coalition gained 100,000 signatures calling on the government to comply with Leveson’s findings. Cameron’s coalition partners the Lib Dems are among them, so the matter rolls on, awaiting further political arbitration in the new year.
If Cameron didn’t reckon for the public outcry, then Leveson certainly did. He predicted the victims and the public would not accept the outcome “if the industry did not grasp the opportunity”. Following seven inquiries into the British press in 70 years, it “did not make sense to contemplate an eighth.” Whether short-term interest will prevail is a moot point, as is the longevity of the media’s powers of influence. What is not in doubt is that Brian Leveson has done us all a favour by pointing a strong light on its problems. Maybe then, the media can return to the problems that affect the rest of us.
Previous Woolly Days media personalities of the year
2009 Mark Scott
2010 Julian Assange