This post first appeared on the Center for Global Communication Studies blog, at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.
“The one thing I am determined not to do is to produce a document which simply sits on the second shelf of a professor of journalism’s study” Leveson LJ, 23 May 2012
“Sustainability is not the same as Legacy. It is not,” says Kay “I really think that” Hope, the hard done-by Head of Sustainability in the BBC’s brilliant comedy series TwentyTwelve, an excruciating parody of Olympic events, many of which seemed to play out in real life.
Kay is locked in a bitter rivalry with the Head of Legacy, the conniving Fi Healey, each desperate to promote their respective causes in the Danish pastry-fuelled meetings of the Olympic Deliverance Committee. Shallow 21st century management-speak provided plenty of ludicrous material for the show’s scriptwriters.
It is with some trepidation then, that I attempt to address the “legacy” of the UK’s Leveson Inquiry and the deeper issues behind an over-used buzzword.
The legacy factor is an important one, however, and one which has preoccupied Lord Justice Leveson. He is only too aware of the plights of previous press inquiries and the media’s reaction.
Jeremy Paxman, well-known for his ferocious interviewing style on BBC’s Newsnight, told Leveson that the chairman’s challenge is to stop himself “becoming a total irrelevance”.
“… what happened in the past, and we’ve seen it more recently with Calcutt and others, is that you have this great brouhaha, there’ll be an Inquiry, there is an Inquiry, and it produces recommendations that are quietly forgotten.”
To which Leveson LJ replied (as partially quoted at the start of this post),
“Mr Paxman, I am entirely cognisant of the problem and have said on more than one occasion during the course of this Inquiry that the one thing I am determined not to do is to produce a document which simply sits on the second shelf of a professor of journalism’s study for him to discuss with his students as yet another attempt that went nowhere.”
The Calcutt report to which Paxman referred, provides a significant backdrop to the 2011/12 Public Inquiry. In 1990, it recommended setting up a new body in place of the old Press Council; it is that new body, the Press Complaints Commission which has, 22 years later, been so heavily criticised in the lead up and during the Leveson Inquiry. Calcutt foresaw the PCC as “non-statutory self-regulation” but by 2012, the definition had shifted, with its former director admitting it was not a regulator but a “complaints body”.
Other reports in the 20th century archive include Royal Commissions on the press in 1949, 1962 and 1977 and a follow up review of the Calcutt report in 1993. The Media Standards Trust, which actively called for the Inquiry as part of the Hacked Off campaign, sets out the history of these various inquiries in one of its submissions to Leveson. Its account creates a sense of reverse déjà vu, as it describes a “repetitive cycle” of a “continued failure of the various voluntary self-regulatory bodies that have existed since the first Royal Commission on the Press published its report in 1949” (p 10-22, PDF). In its view,
“One of the most striking lessons of the past is how easy it is to miss the opportunity for change. 2012 represents just such an opportunity. Any delay could continue the repetitive cycle of failure demonstrated in the past six decades of press regulation” (p.22).
Other recommended preliminary reading on this topic includes an account of Calcutt in the Index on Censorship archive by David McKie, and the latest issue of the British Journalism Review (Sept. 2012 vol. 23 no. 3 27-33), including ‘Leveson on the shelf’ by Professor Roy Greenslade, which should be read in in conjunction with this response and clarification by Gordon Ramsay, Media Standards Trust research fellow, here.
We might also look to Australia when considering Leveson’s potential legacy: one take can be found in another article in the BJR (by subscription) by Stephen Brook, media editor of The Australian, who explains the parallels between Australia’s Finkelstein report and the UK’s Leveson Inquiry and some of the politics at play.
For another account read this talk by Matthew Ricketson, a journalist and Professor of Journalism at the University of Canberra, who assisted Ray Finkelstein QC in his report. He argues that the Australian press have “under-report[ed] a lot of what was presented to the Independent Media Inquiry late last year” .. and “either misreport[ed] the inquiry’s findings or … ignore[d] large parts of the report altogether”.
It seems likely that Lord Justice Leveson will have spotted the parallels for himself, and, in fact, will be taking a trip to Sydney in December to speak about privacy. It will be interesting to see if he makes any comparison between the two inquiries and their immediate outcomes.
In the penultimate episode of TwentyTwelve, Kay Hope finally manages to set up a sustainable tree planting ceremony … only to forget the acorn. A sticky chocolate nut has to be used instead, much to the surprised disdain of celebrity guest Tanni Grey-Thompson.
There may well be members of the media who will try and portray the Leveson Inquiry’s “legacy” as a farce, but there is nothing of Kay Hope about Lord Justice Leveson and there certainly won’t be any silly tree planting stunts.
He is clear that his name and findings should mean more than a dusty tome for media academics. And at the very least, an extensive digital archive has been created, putting serious criticisms and first-person accounts on the record. Unlike his predecessors, Leveson has a chance to leave a substantial digital legacy, accessible with each new Google search.
Judith Townend is a PhD research student at the Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism, City University London, where she also co-ordinates the ‘Open Justice in the Digital Era‘ project. She is @jtownend on Twitter and blogs at http://meejalaw.com.