Adam Tudor and Isabel Martorell are advising Kate and Gerry McCann in relation to their status as ‘Core Participants’ in the Leveson Inquiry


The Leveson Inquiry – The Opening Salvos
By Isabel Martorell

The Leveson Inquiry is now well under way, and Lord Justice Leveson has wasted no time in convening a number of ‘seminars’ before he starts to hear evidence from witnesses in November.

While it was largely prompted by the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, in Part 1 of the Inquiry Lord Justice Leveson has a wider remit to consider the culture, practices and ethics in the press, including “the extent to which the current policy and regulatory framework has failed.”  Part 2 of the Inquiry will then focus on improper and unlawful conduct within the News of the World (and other media organisations too, which may well be causing a few sleepless nights amongst Fleet Street editors…)

Carter-Ruck is advising Kate and Gerry McCann, two of around 50 “media victims” who have been given the status of Core Participant in the Inquiry. They will be amongst those who will give evidence to the Inquiry about their own experiences of the unethical and unlawful practices of the press, and the failures of press self-regulation.

So what has emerged from the Inquiry so far?

The three seminars – held on “The Competitive Pressures on the Press and the Impact on Journalism”, “The Rights and Responsibilities of the Press” and “Approaches to Regulation” have led to some heated exchanges between participants.  The rationale behind the seminars was to ensure that the Inquiry concentrated on the principal issues, and that they were also intended to start a debate amongst those present and any others with an interest in press standards.

The events were largely attended by invited media representatives, who unsurprisingly closed ranks, being defensive both about journalistic standards and the question of more stringent press regulation.

Richard Peppiatt spoke in damning terms of the pressures which he had experienced during his time as a journalist at the Daily Star.  Mr Peppiatt had quit earlier in the year in protest at his perception of the anti-Islamic agenda which he felt was being pursued by the newspaper.

According to Peppiatt, the highly competitive and commercially-driven culture of the newsroom meant that the imperative was to come up with any story which would sell –regardless of its truth.  “You tell us what we want to hear and we won’t question too much the veracity of that information or your methods” was how he summarised the editorial attitude he encountered.

Peppiatt certainly grabbed a few headlines of his own when he admitted that he had frequently fabricated stories for the Daily Star.  Of the nine hundred or so articles he had written for the newspaper over a two year period, Peppiatt said “I can probably count on my fingers and toes the amount that were telling the truth.”

He also explained that with fewer jobs for journalists on offer in what is undoubtedly a declining industry, reporters find it difficult to stand up to such an attitude: “Tabloid newsrooms operate in a bullying and aggressive environment where dissent is simply not tolerated.”

Predictably, press representatives did not take kindly to being turned on by one of their own.  A number of editors present at the seminar stood up to reject the picture of journalistic culture which had been painted by Peppiatt.  “Not in my newsroom!” came the cries, including from editors at the Mail on Sunday and the People, while Dominic Mohan of the Sun responded: “In terms of competitive pressures – the pressures that I feel under are very much my own professional pride to produce a good, fun, lively informative newspaper on a daily basis. “

John Witherow, Editor of the Sunday Times, went even further stating that he believed that journalism had in fact improved and that “Reporters are more reliable and are held to account more by changes that are taking place in law and technology.”

There was apparently no-one present from the Daily Star’s editorial team to respond directly to Peppiatt’s allegations.  An in-house lawyer employed by the Star’s publisher tried to point out that Peppiatt had only ever been a freelancer (although elsewhere it has been reported that he was one who did a five-day week on the news desk for two years…).

Both Peppiatt and, subsequently, Professor Stephen Barnett of the University of Westminster rejected the suggestion that Peppiatt’s experiences were unrepresentative of the industry as a whole.  As Barnett put it: “These practices are rife. They are endemic. And the evidence of what’s happening and the consequences for victims is all around us. It’s not just Richard. And it’s not just the phone hacking of the widows of terrorist victims and the parents of murdered children. “

There is a widely held view in public and political circles that failures in self-regulation of the press have allowed a newsroom culture to develop which tolerates or even encourages unethical and unlawful journalistic practices.  The most notorious example has of course been the phone-hacking scandal; while there may be some force in the argument that the Press Complaints Commission cannot be blamed for failing to prevent breaches of the criminal law, it also failed properly to investigate the matter and to hold the News of the World to account.

But just as turkeys are never likely to cast their votes in favour of Christmas, media representatives at the Leveson Inquiry have been quick to reject any suggestion that more stringent regulation should be introduced.

The much-rehearsed arguments against increased regulation include that any further state interference would represent a blow to democracy and free speech, and that tighter controls may threaten the financial viability of the press.  While such arguments may have a superficial attraction, they ignore that rights such as free speech carry with them responsibilities – to accuracy, fairness and integrity – which have been all too lacking in the press of late.

Paul Dacre, Editor of the Daily Mail, launched into an impassioned defence of self-regulation in general and the Press Complaints Commission in particular.  He argued that the press is already “on the cusp of being over-regulated,” and suggested that it would be “disastrous” to give the PCC the power to impose fines.  It may well have a damaging effect on the bottom line of newspapers’ balance sheets, but (to adopt the parody of tabloid-speak) this may be the only language they understand.  One of the main criticisms levelled against the PCC is the fact that it is a watchdog with no teeth – the PCC’s powers of sanction are limited to obliging a newspaper member to publish an adjudication made by the body.  Dacre’s suggestion that this is a “genuine sanction” and that he and other editors “regard being obliged to publish adjudication as a real act of shame” is one which we could be forgiven for treating with scepticism.   However, Dacre did appear to accept that the writing was on the wall for the PCC in its current incarnation, and he made a number of suggestions for reform of the system including the possible creation of a Press Ombudsman to work alongside the PCC.

The media so far has been able to put forward a strong voice (‘t was ever thus, of course), and it is to be hoped that at the evidence stage the victims of press misconduct will have a proper opportunity to explain the devastation which can be caused when the press fails to behave ethically, lawfully and responsibly.

Given both the current political climate and the remit of the Inquiry it seems almost inevitable that Lord Justice Leveson will recommend a substantial shake-up of press regulation.  But given too the enormous variance in views as to whether reform is even necessary – let alone what form it should take – it is very difficult to second-guess at this stage quite what the Inquiry will conclude.  The only real certainty is that it will be impossible to make proposals which satisfy more than a fraction of the politicians, press, media victims, lawyers, academics and others with an interest in the outcome of the Inquiry, and as such Lord Justice Leveson faces an unenviable task.

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