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Leveson's legacy: will investigative journalists face ever greater obstacles?

Posted by Nicholas Jones


Investigative journalism – across both the press and broadcasting – will almost certainly suffer as a result of the Leveson Inquiry and the introduction of a new regulatory regime. Most speakers at the launch of a new book – After Leveson? The future of British Journalism – feared the worst.

Perhaps the clearest warning of the obstacles that would be placed in the way of investigative journalism came from Dorothy Byrne, head of news and current affairs at Channel Four Television, who gave a vivid description of the way “multi-billion pound organisations and evil regimes" used “tiers of incredibly expensive lawyers" to thwart Channel Four's investigations. She said that any new regulatory regime for the press would be scrutinised by lawyers to find new ways to frustrate and curb newspaper investigations.

Her concern was echoed by Mick Hume of the Free Speech Network and the investigative journalist Paul Lashmar. But Evan Harris, Associate Director of Hacked Off, the group campaigning for the introduction of the Leveson recommendations, disagreed and insisted that Leveson had not proposed any alterations to the existing regulatory code of the Press Complaints Commission.

The future prospects for investigative journalism dominated much of the debate at the Media Society event to launch After Leveson? (26.2.2013)

Mick Hume argued that the Leveson Inquiry and the clamour for tighter regulation had already led to a chilling effect.  It would now be illegal under the Bribery Act for the Daily Telegraph to have bought the stolen computer disc which contained details of MPs' fraudulent expenses; the Sun's investigative editor believed there was now an “ice age in  investigative journalism" because newspapers could no longer pay for information.
Hume thought the root of the problem was that Hacked Off and the supporters of Leveson knew nothing about investigative journalism.  History showed that the most successful investigative journalists had always been rule breakers, ready to do “unethical things" because “a free press is a dirty world."

Paul Lashmar was concerned at the way the Police were following Lord Justice Leveson's recommendations and making it harder for officers who wanted to act as whistleblowers.  Lashmar had benefited from “hundreds of sessions with police officers off the record" and the extra layers of regulation and compliance would make it harder for investigative journalism."What has gone wrong over the last thirty years is that a lot of people lost their moral compass; economic pressure meant using short cuts that were not in the public interest."

Dorothy Byrne said newspapers should learn from Channel Four's experience because the broadcasting regulations gave major companies and regimes every opportunity to frustrate their reporting. “We spend hardly any time dealing with complaints from ordinary people. We have such strict regulation (under Ofcom) that we cannot do what the newspapers have done. The greatest amount of time is spent dealing with multi-billion pound organisations and evil regimes who have read every single page of the regulations and try everything they can to use that as an excuse to thwart us...using every bit of regulation to stop our programmes and that is costing us a massive amount of money. “Anyone thinking of legal regulation of the press must remember these organisations and regimes will use it to try to stop freedom of speech...please look at what happens in practice and how these people could use it against the press."

Evan Harris insisted that the Leveson Report did not suggest any extension of the Press Complaints Commission's code.  “What is clear is that application of the code has to be effective, which the PCC admits had not been effective; and the press accepts it has not been effective. But Leveson is not proposing more regulation. Leveson is not a threat to free speech. Voluntary press regulation should be given another chance. We can be secure in having better journalism emerging from a swamp of bad journalism."

After Leveson? (published by Abramis Academic Publishing) includes chapters by CPBF members Nicholas Jones (A meaningless charade? Rules to prevent ministers colluding with the media likely to be ineffective) and Julian Petley (A distant prospect? The faults in the Free Speech Network line?) 


DATELINE: 1 March, 2013


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