Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Leveson Inquiry report: Journalists and politicians react swiftly to nearly 2,000 page report released today*

No one likes to have a mirror held up to their faces, least of app journalists. Lawyers make lawyer jokes, but reports make jokes about politicians and media executives. Few want to talk about those who have gone over to the dark side to work for Rupert Murdoch or are now aggregating news based on Twitter feeds. Journalism is a good and honorable profession – this despite the fact that a plurality of Americans describe the media as "immoral".

Many journalists have taken to Twitter today to criticize the finds of Lord Justice Brian Leveson and his inquiry, or warn of grave threats to freedom of the press. It is far too early to pass judgement on the Leveson report, all four volumes of it (though that, interestingly enough, isn't stopping journalists and media observers from doing so).

What interests me is the continued disconnect between journalists and media executives and public perception of the job they are doing.

In recounting the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World, Leveson had to say the obvious, knowing that so many journalists continue to be in denial:
"Most responsible corporate entities would be appalled that employees were or could be involved in the commission of crime in order to further their business. Not so at the News of the World. When the police had sought to execute a warrant, they were confronted and driven off by the staff at the newspaper. Cooperation, if provided, was minimal. The two that were sentenced to terms of imprisonment were paid very substantial sums as compensation for loss of employment when they were released."
As a publisher, one who has consistently been judged by the condition of his P&L, I am conditioned to view hard numbers as indicators of performance. If public opinion polls are not considered a fair judge of the performance of the press, both here in the U.S. and in the U.K., then maybe these numbers will get your attention:
This chart, included in the Leveson report, shows the pathetic performance of newspapers over the past decade.

Sadly, many media executives and journalists will simply pass off these circulation figures as the result of the effects of the growth of the Internet – and I will not get into a cat fight with critics who insist that all is well with their trade because I know that behind closed doors they complain about the condition of their industry.

It is not surprising that Prime Minister David Cameron's first reaction to the new report would be to resist new press regulations, even if those regulations are self-administered. It is hard to break old habits and the Prime Minister has been conditioned to play it safe with the media, especially the Murdoch press.

"I believe there may be alternative options for putting in place incentives, providing reassurance to the public and ensuring the Leveson principles of regulation are put in place and these options must be explored," the Cameron said in the House of Commons this afternoon in rejecting the findings and recommendations of the inquiry.

Just as unsurprising, opposition leader Ed Miliband spoke in support of the recommendations of the report, saying that the Leveson "provides a crucial new guarantee which we have never had before. He builds in a role for the media regulator Ofcom, to ensure that the system that is established passes the test we would all want applied to it: that it is truly independent and provides effective protection for people like the McCanns and the Dowlers."

(Background: it was the discovery that the teenager Millie Dowler's voicemail had been hacked by the Murdoch tabloid News of the World that sparked the inquiry. Dowler's voicemail was hacked and deleted after the teenager had gone missing, leading her family to believe that she was still alive, though she later was found to have been murdered.)

But Leveson (or as the NYT's style has it "Sir Brian") said at the conclusion of his presentation this afternoon "The ball moves back into the politicians’ court, they must now decide who guards the guardians."

* They are apparently very fast readers.