Why the Leveson Report has been ineffective

In the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, the Leveson Report sought to investigate the practices of the British press. Three years on, it’s difficult to see any meaningful impact on the debate between privacy and press.

This article examines two of the reasons why the Leveson Report has – so far – not appeared to have made much of a difference.

The Press controls the way the issues are reported

Seizing on the lack of political momentum to support the new Press Recognition Panel created by Royal Charter, large parts of the press have flocked to the Press Complaints Commission’s successor, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso). Ipso has already ruled out seeking recognition from the Panel, while another would-be regulator, Impress, has applied to be recognised, but is struggling to attract publications to regulate. 

Even though the Panel is entirely independent of the Government, and despite overwhelming public opinion against press self-regulation, journalists have been quick to denounce the Report and the Charter as improperly infringing upon freedom of the press. Proponents of the Report would argue that it is not the government that seeks to limit press freedom, but rather the public who increasingly believe in a robust right to privacy, and who see the unbridled practice of sensationalist journalism as undermining their core rights. Viewed through that lens, the Report’s proposals and the Panel’s oversight would seek to strike a balance between the two rights, rather than let one run roughshod over the other.

News of The World Leveson newspaper
Revelations about the phone-hacking activities of the News of the World sparked a comprehensive investigation into the way the press operates.

Nevertheless, the press inevitably controls the narrative, which is why it’s little wonder that Ipso is not in a hurry to be regulated. That might change once the Crime and Courts Act 2013 comes into force. The Act will allow exemplary damages to be obtained against journalists not subject to a Panel-approved regulatory body. Ironically, after so many years of insisting that financial pressures don’t play a part in editorial decisions, it may be the bottom line that forces the press to play by the rules. 

Printed press is losing relevance

The Report’s approach to the difficult issue of regulating online media was, worryingly, to ignore it. The Report asserts that its recommendations are relevant in the Age of the internet for two reasons. The first is that people are more likely to trust reports from the press, as opposed to a random website, because it is known that journalists are bound by certain ethical rules. The second is that violations of privacy are magnified by being blazoned on the front page of a mass-circulated newspaper; this is, apparently, qualitatively different from online publication. 

These arguments are likely to strike most as naïve, and don’t appear to be supported by evidence. A 2015 study by Oxford University’s Reuters Institute shows that social media is poised to overtake printed newspapers as a news source. Further, although social media remains less trusted than printed newspapers, the study reveals that online sources are considered to be several times more reliable than those in print. This supports the undeniable importance of online media, and casts considerable doubt over the relevance of the Report.

Lord Justice Leveson ended his Report by noting that “this is the seventh time in less than 70 years that the issues [of press regulation] have been addressed. No-one can think it makes any sense to contemplate an eighth.” Sadly, the Report’s brazen denial about the future of news could very well lead to that eighth much sooner than hoped.

Alexander Kanishchev, Adam Steene and Samir Pasha. This article is part of a larger analysis on the Leveson Report by the Themis Think Tank