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428552IOC XX X 10.1177/0306422011428552DispatchesLessons For Leveson
Lessons For Leveson
As British journalists face the most significant public inquiry in a generation, Julian Petley talks to former Press Council chief Louis Blom-Cooper
The Leveson inquiry, whose remit includes examining ‘the culture, practices, and ethics of the press’, as well as making recommendations for a ‘new more effective policy and regulatory regime which supports the integrity and freedom of the press’, represents a twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform the behaviour of the press and the manner in which it is regulated. Why twice? Because we’ve actually been here before.
During the 80s, intrusive and generally excessive behaviour by the popular press led to a growing number of calls in Parliament for newspapers to be regulated more effectively. In 1981, Frank Allaun introduced what was to be the first of a series of private members’ Bills calling for a statutory right of reply for members of the public against whom allegations had been made in the media as a whole; Austin Mitchell introduced a similar Bill in 1984, and in 1987 Ann Clywd brought forward her Unfair Reporting and Right of Reply Bill. These were all Labour MPs, but in 1987 the Tory MP William Cash presented his Right of Privacy Bill, and the following year another Tory, John Browne, introduced a Protection of Privacy Bill, closely followed by Labour MP Tony Worthington’s Right of Reply Bill.
14 lessons for leveson
In 1980, the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom set up an independent inquiry into the Press Council, chaired by Geoffrey Robertson QC. This produced the highly critical report People Against the Press, which called for the Council to be given considerably sharper teeth and for the creation of a statutory press ombudsman, as well as for a Freedom of Information Act and the relaxation of laws which hindered investigative reporting. (In the present context, this is a work which urgently needs revisiting.) In February 1987, Lord Longford initiated a debate on press standards in the Lords, and in July of the same year Labour forced a debate in the Commons on Murdoch’s acquisition of the Today newspaper.
By the late 1980s, loud demands for press reform were therefore very firmly on the political and social agenda. This led to the appointment in 1988 of the eminent QC Sir Louis Blom-Cooper as the new head of the Press Council, with the aim of making it a more respected, authoritative and effective self-regulatory body. Like Geoffrey Robertson, Blom-Cooper was concerned both to protect, and indeed to enlarge, the freedom to practise serious journalism which was clearly in the public interest, but also to provide forms of redress for those who had been the victims of mere muckraking and scandalmongering.
The problem was, however, that the popular press cared little for the former kind of journalism but was determined to protect the latter at all costs. Thus Blom-Cooper’s reforms not only found little support amongst owners and editors (and by no means only at the popular end of the market), but he himself became the target of press mischief-making, both in the newspapers themselves and, more damagingly still, behind the scenes in Westminster and Whitehall. Thus the Council was described in the newspapers it was supposed to be regulating as consisting of ‘pompous laymen and self-important journalists’, as straying ‘too far into the jungles of taste and discretion’, as a ‘bunch of loonies’ (the Sun, inevitably) and as issuing ‘hectoring encyclicals’.
Seemingly showing little faith in Blom-Cooper’s reforms, in 1989 the government responded to the growing clamour over press misbehaviour by establishing a committee of inquiry under Sir David Calcutt QC, whose remit was to ‘consider what measures (whether legislative or otherwise) are needed to give further protection to individual privacy from the activities of the press and improve recourse against the press for the individual citizen’. The writing was clearly on the wall for the Council, and indeed Calcutt was to recommend its abolition and its replacement by the Press Complaints Commission, a body with, to the delight of the press, an