‘By golly, it’s political, this Leveson business’. So says Quentin Letts, prolific freelance journalist writing for the Press Gazette, and it’s difficult to disagree with him. The delay in publication of Lord Justice Leveson’s report on the culture, practices and ethics of the British press has exposed a vacuum into which the various vested and political interests of core participants have been aired, and Letts seems to speak for much of Fleet Street when he says that the British Establishment, in its response to the phone-hacking scandal, ‘has over-reacted like a coach party of goosed mother superiors’.
Evidently, his is also a political opinion, with Letts a card-carrying member of the ‘do-nothing’ party. Such an attitude is unsurprising: what is notable is the extent to which whole media organizations are flagrantly jockeying, lobbying and positioning, actively attempting to influence the landscape of the media in the aftermath of the inquiry.
It is worth documenting and collating some of these interventions, for together they illustrate both a sense of near-unanimity and an undercurrent of defiance. ‘Every day the Sun turns away stories that are in the public interest because of the 2010 Bribery Act. With no public interest defence we cannot talk to whistleblowers who want compensation for the risk they are taking,’ says Brian Flynn, investigations editor of the Sun. Kirsty Walker, employed by the Daily Mail for seven years, revealed in a Spectator article that the ‘menacing post-Leveson culture in which journalists are already forced to operate’ was one reason for her recent departure from the paper.
And it’s not just the tabloid hacks, originally the villains of this saga, who are feeling the heat. High-minded editorials from broadsheet newspapers carry essentially the same message: that the statutory underpinning of press practices spells the beginning of the end for independent journalism. The Daily Telegraph quotes the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, who observed in a speech that ‘in a country governed by the rule of law, the independence of the press is a constitutional necessity’; the Sunday Times thunders regularly about the need for self-regulation unmediated by the legislature; and Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator, writes that ‘already I as an editor am getting MPs and ministers calling me up to order that I discipline writers who displease them or take articles down in a way that they wouldn’t have even a year ago.’
It is undoubtedly true that there has been a sea change in the way that the press has conducted itself since last year's shocking revelations. As the Guardian’s Professor Roy Greenslade observed in his testimony to Leveson, ‘kiss and tell’ stories have virtually disappeared since inquiry was set up last July. Some, of course, would advance such a fact as a force for good, a welcome blow to the scurrility and sordid excesses of modern celebrity culture. Yet the message of the Telegraph’s editorial opinion, that ‘to over-regulate the many in order to curb the excesses of a few is to risk losing everything’, must be heard, and listened to. The relentless opining and positioning from some quarters of the press may be premature, but it stems from genuine anxiety about censorship, the effects of which can in some areas already be discerned, and must not be allowed to spread.