Barrister Nazir Ahmed
In 2007, News of the World’s Royal Editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glen Mulcaire were convicted of illegal interception of phone messages. According to the News of the World, this was an isolated incident, but influential dailies like the Guardian claimed that evidence existed that this practice extended beyond Goodman and Mulcaire.
In 2011, after a civil settlement with Sienna Miller, the Metropolitan Police Service set up a new investigation in the name of the “Operation Weeting.”
In July, it was revealed that News of the World reporters had hacked the voicemail of murder victim Milly Dowler. Those incidents created huge public outcry throughout the country.
As a result, the Prime Minister David Cameron was more or less compelled to announce a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005.
The Inquiry (commonly and widely known as Leveson Inquiry as the Inquiry was headed by Lord Justice Leveson) was a judicial public inquiry headed by Lord Justice Leveson, a sitting Judge of the Court of Appeal.
On 20th July 2011, the Prime Minister announced a panel of six people who would be working with Lord Justice Leveson on the Inquiry. Those six persons were: former Chairman of the Financial Times Sir David Bell, Director of the Liberty Shami Chakrabarti, former Ofcom Director Lord Currie, former Political Editor of Channel 4 News Elinor Goodman, former Political Editor of the Daily Telegraph George Jones and former Chief Constable of West Midlands Police Sir Paul Scott-Lee QPM.
In making announcement on the penal of assessors, the Prime Minister said “These people have been chosen not only for their expertise in the media, broadcasting, regulation, government and policing, but for their complete independence from any interested parties.” Although the Prime Minister announced six penal of assessors, Lord Justice Leveson had the power under the Inquiries Act 2005 to appoint additional assessors should he feels necessary. The Cabinet Secretary nominated Collins Rice as the Secretary to the Leveson Inquiry.
There was 16 staff employed in the Secretariat comprising both full and part time staff drawn from a number of Government Departments. The Solicitors have seconded from the Treasury Solicitors Department.The Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press was approached in four Modules.
Module 1: The relationship between the press and the public and looks at phone-hacking and other potentially illegal behaviour.
Module 2: The relationship between the press and police and the extent to which that has operated in the public interest.
Module 3: The relationship between press and politicians.
Module 4: Recommendations for a more effective policy and regulation that supports the integrity and freedom of the press while encouraging the highest ethical standards.
The Leveson Inquiry was funded by the Home Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
The final report was submitted to the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympic, Media and Sport. The Prime Minister initially asked the Inquiry to report within a year. The Inquiry started with public seminars in order to take a broad brush look at the wider picture, to hear opinions and debate in the areas covered by the Terms of Reference. The seminars were distinct from the evidence-taking exercise that was being conducted, including through the public hearings. Hearings were taken place in the Inquiry Room at the Royal Courts of Justice, the Strand, in London, where nearly 400 witnesses were called and over 300 statements were made. A wide range of witnesses, including newspaper reporters, management, proprietors, police officers and politicians of all parties, all gave evidence to the Inquiry under oath and in public. The Press Release dated 14 September 2011 stated that Part 1 of the Leveson Inquiry would be addressing “the culture, practices and ethics of the press, including contacts between the press and politicians and the press and the police; it is to consider the extent to which the current regulatory regime has failed and whether there has been a failure to act upon any previous warnings about media misconduct.” And Part 2 would be addressing “the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International, other media organisations or organisations. It will also consider the extent to which any relevant police force investigated allegations relating to News International, and whether the police received corrupt payments or were otherwise complicit in misconduct.” Lord Justice Leveson opened the hearing on 14 November 2011, saying: “The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?” Lord Justice Leveson published his Report on Part 1 of the Inquiry on 29 November 2012. However, Part 2 of the Inquiry cannot commence until the ongoing police investigations and any subsequent criminal proceedings have been completed. The final report consisted 2000 pages along with a 48 pages executive summary. Leveson found that those who sought to complain about newspaper coverage of their affairs were rarely taken seriously enough. He found “a cultural tendency within parts of the press vigorously to resist or dismiss complainants almost as a matter of course.” Celebrities certainly have right too. Leveson found “ample evidence” that parts of the press decided actors, footballers, writers and pop stars were “fair game, public property with little if any entitlement to any sort of private life or respect for dignity.” He added “Their families, including their children, are pursued and important personal moments are destroyed.”
There was no findings on any individual on phone hacking, but Leveson was not convinced that phone hacking was confined to one or two individuals. Leveson Inquiry found that the existing Press Complaints Commission was not sufficient and it recommended for a new independent body, which would have a range of sanctions available to it, including fines and direction of the prominence of apologies and corrections. The new independent Press Watchdog was to be formed without MPs or serving newspapers editor being on the penal. It should be underpinned by statute, but should be free of “any influence from industry and goveremnt.” Leveson rejected the characterisation of his proposal as “statutory regulation of the press.”
According to him, the legislation should set up and organise the Watchdog and at the same time it should “place an explicit duty on the government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press.” The Watchdog would be able to fine press organisations that breach its code by as much as one percent of their turn over with a maximum fine of £1 million.
Membership of the body would be voluntary, but incentivised by schemes such as kit mark and an inquisitorial arbitration service for handling for claims such as libel and breach of privacy. The law would allow the body to award exemplary damages in cases brought against non-participants. The newspapers that refuse to join the new body could face direct regulation by media watchdog Ofcom.
Leveson also made recommendations regarding the Data Protection Act, powers and duties of the Information Commissioner, and about conduct of relations between the press, the public, the police and politicians. Immediately after the publication of the report Prime Minister David Cameron made a statement to the House of Commons. He welcomed many of Leveson’s findings but expressed “serious concerns and misgivings” regarding the prospect of implementing the changes with legislation.
Mr Ed Milibad, the Leader of the Opposition, called for full implementation of the report. Mr Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and the leader of Liberal Democrats was unable to agree on a position with his coalition partner Mr Cameron. Thus, he made his own statement agreeing that changes in the law were necessary.
Leading newspapers such as the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraphs, the Independent, the Times, the Sun, the Daly Express, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail broadly agreed with Cameron’s position, while the Guardian declared that Miliband had taken a “principled position” but that great care would be required for the legislation.
The leader of the National Union of Journalists, Michelle Stanistreet, hailed Leveson’s backing of a contractual “conscious clause.”
On 20th July 2011, Prime Minister Cameron announced in a speech to Parliament the final terms of reference of Leveson’s inquiry, stating that it will extend beyond newspapers to include broadcasters and social media. But it fell short to include the ethnic community media.
The ethnic media, both print and electronic, have been dynamic and vibrant. Along with multiculturalism in the pluralist society, the ethnic media has been gradually expanding. In London city alone hundred of foreign languages is spoken. Hundred of ethnic newspapers and satellite TV channels are being operated from the United Kingdom. Yet the Leveson Inquiry is totally silent on the issues of ethnic media. There is a strong presence of Bangladeshis in the UK.
It is estimated that around half a million to a million Bangladeshi are living in the UK. Six community based satellite TV Channels are operated from London. More than 15 Bengali newspapers are published weekly from London.
Some Bengali newspapers are also published from other cities as well. These clearly show how deeply rooted the ethnic media in general and Bengali media in particular. Despite this, there has been no representation in the Leveson Inquiry from either the ethnic media as a whole or Bengali media. As a result, the issue, concerns, ethics, interests and sensitiveness of both ethnic and Bengali media have not been reflected in the Leveson Inquiry. This is unfortunate.
The Leveson Inquiry could have, on their own initiatives, made arrangements to hear evidence and take representation from the ethnic media. Or alternatively the ethnic media could have, on their own motion, applied to the Leveson Inquiry for their concerns and representation to be heard and considered. We could then have a set direction and well thought out guidelines from the Leveson Inquiry for the ethnic media.
Barrister Nazir Ahmed: a UK based Legal expert, analyst, writer and columnist.
Barrister Nazir Ahmed