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Leveson exposes corrosive practices of UK tabloid press

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Leveson exposes corrosive practices of UK tabloid press

Post  Annabel on Sat 26 Nov - 10:08


Saturday November 26 2011

Leveson exposes corrosive practices of UK tabloid press

ANALYSIS: Shocking evidence was given this week by celebrities hounded by the press. Judge Brian Leveson must now try to address this problem, writes MARK HENNESSY

FOLLOWING DAYS watching the Leveson Inquiry, one could be forgiven for wondering how long it would have taken Judge Brian Leveson to handle the beef tribunal, or any of the other investigations that have filled the Irish agenda over the last two decades. Now ending its second week, Leveson has held to a cracking pace, declining occasional efforts to read out previously submitted documentation at length, while all questions to witnesses, from whatever source, must go through the inquiry’s counsel.

The speed means occasionally that issues are not teased out fully, but it is already clear the British tabloid press has found in Leveson a dangerous opponent who could fundamentally challenge practices that have corroded the trade over the last 30 years.

Last month, senior Fleet Street editors attending a seminar hosted by the judge insisted the Press Complaints Commission was working well and the phone-hacking scandal illustrated the failures of the police to enforce existing law, rather than highlighting the need for more.

Indeed, it can be argued that Fleet Street thought too much about phone-hacking in the run-up to the opening of the inquiry, and far too little on how the trade – in the glare of television cameras and legal questioning – would look to the world outside.

For those in any doubt beforehand, Leveson has already illustrated the falsity of the argument the self-regulation system is working, since it has clearly failed to curb a cancer that started with co-operative “celebrities” but spread later to those who never made Faustian pacts with the tabloids.

The treatment meted out to the parents of Madeleine McCann and those of murder victim Milly Dowler has been well ventilated this week, but other conduct far removed from phone-hacking has been both unpleasant and revealing.

Take actor Sienna Miller, for example. One night she attended a ball for a charity helping to care for terminally ill children, and played on the floor in the corner of the room with a very sick boy aged six who was pretending to shoot her. “I was pretending to die, which was – you know, we were playing a game. And somebody took a photograph and the [Daily] Mirror cut the boy out of the photograph and said that I was drunk,” she said.

In time, the Mirror apologised and paid damages, saying: “We said that Sienna’s boozy antics had shocked guests at the event and thereby suggested that she had behaved in an unprofessional manner.” Describing the apology as both “minuscule” and irrelevant, since the damage was done, Miller went on: “If anybody in my line of work sees this photograph and hears that I was behaving as they suggested at a charity event, it’s just detrimental to my career, to my reputation – and I think this is sort of the problem.

“The fact that they knew that they would be sued and have to pay damages was really not enough of a deterrent in certain situations within the media,” she told the judge.

Even the reporting of Leveson this week has been illustrative. On Thursday, the British version of the Daily Star led with the criticism made at the inquiry of the News of the World for printing Kate McCann’s private diaries. Inside, however, it acknowledged the Richard Desmond-owned Express Newspapers – which publishes the Daily Star itself along with the Daily Express, Sunday Express and Star on Sunday in the UK – had paid £550,000 in damages to the McCanns. Even then, there was little contrition for its own past acts – including one allegation that the couple had “sold” their child, noting that “all newspapers and broadcasters” had shown contempt for the couple.

So far, Leveson, who is careful in his comments, shows no sign of favouring state regulation of the media as a first option, stressing as he frequently has the need to protect freedom of speech.

Equally, however, his recommendations are likely to propose radical reforms to the structures of the Press Complaints Commission, including, perhaps, the power to fine or censure media organisations for breaches, to instate more independent members and to have tougher regulatory powers.

Libel lawyer Mark Thomson complained in his testimony the commission currently “wears too many hats”, trying sometimes to be the newspapers’ “trade union”, and, at other times, trying to mediate.

Faced with the British Human Rights Act, tabloid newspapers in the UK – with the exception of the Daily Mail , though it has faced criticism on other grounds this week – increasingly decide not to offer any warning to intended subjects about stories, lest they may go to court seeking an injunction to stop publication. A call for a “prior notification” law is at the centre of former Formula 1 head Max Mosley’s campaign, ever since he was accused of taking part in a Nazi-themed orgy.

Unlike some people who have become consumed by a single issue, Mosley has managed not to become a crank, wittily detailing his own sexual predilections for group sex without a hint of embarrassment.

His demand for such a law, however, failed before the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds it would have a chilling effect on free speech, but there is a momentum now behind the campaign for the change that was not there at that time.

Mosley’s argument is seductive. Once published, an allegation cannot be withdrawn fully, particularly since the internet and social media mean the domestic laws of any state struggle in the “wild west” of cyberspace.

He is currently taking legal action in 22 countries to get material posted online about the false allegation of his having been involved in a Nazi-themed orgy removed from internet postings – although an orgy did itself happen.

The British newspaper industry, morphing more and more into an online creation, is still a powerful beast and will fight tooth-and-nail to protect its interests.

However, Leveson has in just two weeks laid enough of a foundation that the big beasts of Fleet Street – such as the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre – will face a worrying time before they, too, appear before him.
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