Friday, 12 October 2012

Professor Sue Mendus on press regulation, the limits to free speech, and the Leveson Inquiry

You cannot hope to bribe or twist
thank God! The British journalist
But seeing what the man will do
unbribed, theres no occasion to (Humbert Wolfe)

In July 2011, and in the wake of the News International phone-hacking scandal, David Cameron set up an Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press. This Inquiry, the Leveson Inquiry, has recently completed its formal hearings and is expected to publish its recommendations in November. What did Lord Justice Leveson hear and what should he now recommend? 

Leveson heard evidence from 474 witnesses of whom over 200 were classed as media or PR. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these were extremely wary - even suspicious - of the Inquiry and of the recommendations which might emerge from it. Some referred to it as a show trial, while others feared that it would (and will) result in recommendations for extensive curbs on press freedom. Mr Michael Gove MP, himself a former journalist, went so far as to claim that the very existence of the Inquiry had a chilling effectGove on Leveson's "chilling effect". He advised Leveson to avoid recommending additional legislation, and he told the court that freedom of speech doesnt mean anything unless some people are going to be offended some of the time.

Well, we can all agree on the importance of free speech, but before endorsing Mr Goves advice to Leveson, lets pause for a moment and remember how we got here. The Leveson Inquiry was not set up because the press had offended some people (though it had). It was set up because significant sections of the press had used their freedom to: intercept the voicemail of a murdered teenager, make corrupt payments to the police, publish the private diary of a bereaved mother, and disclose the medical records of a Prime Ministers son. They had also - allegedly - conspired to pervert the course of justice. All this is a very long way indeed from causing offence to some people, and Mr Gove must surely know that it is.

In particular, he must know that the real danger in Britain today is not that press regulation will undermine the freedom to offend. The real danger lies in the fact that press power is concentrated in the hands of comparatively few people, and those people have persistently used their power to benefit themselves and their political friends, while damaging and discrediting their political enemies. When this happens, a so-called free press can quickly become an anti-democratic weapon which the powerful use to foist their own political preferences on an under-informed electorate. That is the real danger and, sadly, there is nothing new about it.

More than half a century ago, giving evidence to the 1947 Royal Commission on the Press, the National Union of Journalists (no less) conceded that only restriction of liberty would remedy the abuses of the press which were prevalent at that time. The same abuses are even more prevalent now, and it falls to Lord Justice Leveson finally to call a halt to them. My own hope is that he will recommend an end to the farce of self-regulation which is the Press Complaints Commission, and a strengthening of the existing anti-monopoly laws which did nothing to contain Rupert Murdoch's ambition and which almost allowed him to gain control of BSkyB. It is here, if anywhere, that hope for freedom lies.

Professor Sue Mendus
Sue Mendus is Morrell Professor Emerita at the University of York. 

Her departmental webpage can be found here. In 2004 she was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, and from 2008 to 2012 she was Vice President (Social Sciences) of the Academy. She is a Founding Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales.

Her written and oral evidence to the Leveson Inquiry can be found here: