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Law Column: Has Leveson got the message?

“I am a great believer in what local newspapers do…I’ve got the message.”

So said Lord Justice Leveson when an array of regional editors appeared before his Inquiry this week.  So what was the message, and do we any clearer idea of what the outcome will be?

Having listened to numerous witnesses, some of whom seem to relish attacking the press whilst making no distinction between national and regional papers, I was left feeling felt slightly less suicidal, representatives from the regional press having finally had an opportunity to make their case.

Not only did they all make clear their commitment to the following the spirit as well as the letter of the PCC Code but, Marie McGeoghan reminded us all of the “contract of trust with our readers” that editors clearly believe they have and must maintain.

Will there be a PCC mark 2 or a stepped regulatory system, step one addressing general complaints, step two, “system failures”, aka phone hacking?

I don’t know. I for one rather hope that editors will not be excluded from all judgment within the regulatory process.

As Nigel Pickover said, whatever the outcome, we must make sure “we don’t throw out the good things” the PCC does, whilst Peter Charlton recognised that there is an expectation of change.

For me, the editors’ evidence, given so clearly and straightforwardly, in contrast to that of some previous witnesses, reflected the wealth of experience and commitment to serving readers that I believe exists throughout the UK.

What I do know is that Lord Justice Leveson can have been left in no doubt that the regional press have been staunch supporters of the PCC and of the Code, and that there are very real concerns that any new regulatory structure will add to the pressure upon the ‘bottom line’.

Having heard from the editors,  Lord Justice Leveson can have been in no doubt about the very significant financial pressures the whole of the regional press face.

Spencer Feeney talked about the halving of advertising spending over the last five years – and no one disagreed with him.

The good news, we were told, aside from the possible monetization opportunities that John McLellan believes will arise from the tablet market, is that the content of papers is still popular, both in print and online and, with over a 150 years of experience between them, none of the regional editors could identify one instance of ‘phone hacking that they had ever come across, nor of payments being made to public officials for stories.

Ian Hislop says the law as it stands is sufficient to protect peoples’ rights. He may or may not be right. But if the Inquiry results in a change of the law, for example by way of an enhanced Public Interest (Reynold’s privilege) defence, I for one won’t be complaining.

As to the future, well we will have to wait and see but, as an avid supporter of the regional press (I would be wouldn’t I?) there seems to be a clear recognition that the regional market is committed to serving its readers and that the fragility and challenges it now faces must not be exacerbated by the fallout arising from the sins of others.

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  • January 20, 2012 at 10:18 am

    All irrelevant as newspapers, national and local, are like the coal industry in the 1970s – doomed! Most are out of touch with their readers. Few local reporters on the ground. That’s the issue, along with journalists being constrained by the laws of libel and contempt while people can publish whatever they want on the internet with no fear of the law. Level playing field – ha!

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