The Hacked Off Campaign Second Annual Leveson Lecture, Wednesday 4th December 2014

Dec 4, 2014 · 19 min read

When I was a young officer in the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, I was deeply influenced by a great industrial negotiator called Paul Corby.

Paul is one of the best read people I know. He once lovingly handed me the book by the great American journalist and politician, Upton Sinclair, The Jungle.

The Jungle tells the story of the Chicago meat packing industry at the turn of the last century. It graphically chronicles the unsanitary conditions and the exploitation of migrant labour in an industry that was crying out for reform.

At the time, President Theodore Roosevelt described Sinclair as a “crackpot socialist” saying “I have an utter contempt for him. He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful.”

Nevertheless, through meticulous journalism, a beautiful writing style, and political campaigning, “The Jungle’ caused such public uproar that it contributed in part to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.

I thought of the book when Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun newspaper described me as a “socialist zealot”. It reminded me what you can do when you collectively organise against powerful institutions that belligerently refuse to change.

And that’s why I am grateful to you all for being here tonight. Many of you have been derided in the newspaper jungle because you stood up to be counted. And you are here tonight because you want the political parties to hear your message of reform.

So It is a very great honour to deliver this second Leveson lecture. The Leveson Inquiry was a landmark in this country’s history. It was watched online by millions and it exposed two things to the British public and to the world, in a way that had never been done before.

The first was that some of our national newspapers had sunk to depths of unethical and illegal behaviour that disgraced the name of journalism. And that these weren’t just isolated incidents. They were habitual, and sometimes even matters of policy. In the judge’s words, papers wrought havoc in the lives of innocent people.

The second thing that the Leveson Inquiry exposed was that this was the work of a small group of companies — in reality a small group of media moguls, executives and senior journalists — who enjoyed extraordinary power.

Not only were they able to cover up for each other systematically, refusing to apply to their own industry the kind of brutal treatment they dish out on their front pages and comment pages when things go wrong in, say, social work, the NHS or our schools. No, in the little club of the Sun, the Mail, the Express, the Mirror and so on, fearless scrutiny was something you never had to experience yourself. Until Leveson.

But of course their power doesn’t stop there. As the Inquiry showed us, these are not organisations dedicated to holding power to account through journalism.

That’s just the myth they propagate, the smokescreen they hide behind. No, they themselves have become the power in this country.

Look at the relationship between Rupert Murdoch’s company and the police. As Leveson showed us, this was so close that it was impossible to tell who was working for whom. All you could say was who they were working against: and that was the general public. You and me.

And look at the relationship between these organisations and the world of politics. I have said many times before, there is a huge amount here that shames our politicians. Far too many, across both main parties — yes, my own included — and beyond, have allowed themselves to be seduced into giving these papers what they wanted. Far too many have compromised themselves to gain short-term advantage.

But the people who run the big press organisations and who edit the big papers led the way. They have operated like a Mafia, intimidating here, bribing there, terminating careers when it suits them and rewarding their most loyal toadies. For years they could ‘fix’ any legislation that affected them, in a way that no other industry could. But it didn’t stop there. Their influence was so great that for many, it became impossible to know who was really running the country.

All of this the Leveson Inquiry laid before the country. Vividly and clearly. The public gasped as the editors and proprietors condemned themselves on the witness stand. Richard Desmond didn’t know what ethics were. Paul Dacre, by his demeanour, showed that he did not think the law applied to him or his paper. Editor after editor — men who routinely claim they are answerable for everything that appears in their pages — told the judge pathetically that they were completely unaware of all the wrongdoing perpetrated on their watch.

It was sickening but it was a relief. And set alongside the heartbreaking testimony of these people’s victims, it created what I believe was an unshakeable determination among the British public that there must be change, and real change.

Never again should those who run our big national newspapers be allowed to abuse ordinary British people with impunity. Never again should they be allowed to subvert the justice system.

Never again should they be allowed to subvert our democracy.

That is the legacy of the Leveson Inquiry, and I am proud to be asked to give this anniversary lecture. My theme, however, is ‘Unfinished Business’.

Look around you at what is going on today. No, let me correct that. Look beyond the lies, the covering-up and the distortions in our big national newspapers and look, for example, at what is happening in our courts. An extraordinary series of trials is revealing mountains of new evidence of what these organisations got up to. Evidence that even the Leveson Inquiry did not uncover — in fact, in a few cases evidence of things that were firmly denied by witnesses under oath before that inquiry.

In recent weeks, we have learned the following:

That a second employee of News Corps UK subsidiary has been convicted of corrupt payments to public officials

That the judge in the Coulson — Brooks trial was of the view that those acquitted brought the prosecution upon themselves by their conduct.

That a second Sunday Mirror journalist has confessed to hacking phones that Mahzer Mahmood was considered by a judge to have lied to the court

That several prosecutions have been dropped that relied on Mazher Mahmood’ evidence

That all convictions based on Mazher Mahmood’s evidence are being reviewed

That Mahmood is alleged to have known of corrupt payments to police officers [and well done to Panorama on that]

That Andy Coulson faces proceedings for perjury in Scotland in relation to his evidence in the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial. I have said this before and I say this again: the jury in the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial, were not in my view, given all the facts they required.

And the courts have heard sworn statements -

That phone hacking was ‘common knowledge and industry-wide’

That senior figures at Trinity Mirror actively encouraged hacking of phones

That newspaper bosses referred to their readers as ‘plebs’

That Rebekah Brooks ordered the deletion of millions of emails

That Sun journalists were told that all cash payments (including those alleged and in some cases proven to be made to public officials) had to be signed off by Rebecca Brooks

That the Management Standards Committee may have been selective in which of their journalists they chose to “shop” to the police when “draining the swamp”, in order to protect some of the swamp-dwellers higher up in the food chain

That News Corp stopped co-operating with the police when it became clear that co-operation would not immunise them against corporate prosecution

That the CPS are considering charges against 9 Trinity Mirror journalists and executives

That in all five court cases so far involving the Sun and the News of the World, journalists have complained of the bullying atmosphere at those papers

That the Sun has a seven-foot-high safe full of material ready to be used to blackmail people

That senior journalists at news international now say they thought that paying police for tip-offs was covered by the Editor’s Code

That The Sun bought from a police officer the witness statements regarding a rape complaint (from a member of the public against two police officers) — which included the complainant’s statement, listing her name, address and circumstances of the incident.

That the current news editor of the Daily Mail told a court that it is “very standard journalistic practice” to invent quotes.

It is an astonishing catalogue. And there is much more. Although, as I say, leading journalists such as the editors of the Times, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph do not seem to think it is appropriate to tell their readers very much about it.

Where journalists are acquitted, of course, our national press reports it lavishly, often with a combination of indignation and hand-wringing that I can’t help laughing at.

The papers that — for example — monster Christopher Jefferies just because he had been arrested now claim to be appalled to find that a reporter might be got out of bed by police, that the process of criminal law is slow and stressful, that defendants sometimes have families who suffer. That, remarkably, some people go through all this when in fact they are innocent.

Or that they are suddenly — but selectively — converted to the idea that prisons are not holiday camps, that open prisons perform a valuable role, and that human rights checks and balances should apply to suspects and criminals.

Will these papers learn from all this? When it comes to reporting on criminal cases in the future, will they show a little humanity towards suspects and defendants? Let’s see.

I mentioned their indignation. Boy are they indignant. Reading what they write, you might be forgiven that the employees of the Sun, the Mail, the Sunday Times were the saints and martyrs of our society. You might believe that they are spotless, virtuous souls constantly persecuted for their heroic work in exposing wrongdoing and keeping our society safe and fair.

Now don’t get me wrong. We have some great journalists in this country and we would be in trouble if we didn’t. I was moved and delighted to see Andrew Norfolk of the Times win journalist of the year last night for his work exposing organised child abuse. He has nobility. And we should never forget that it took courageous journalism to expose corrupted journalism. But we also have far more than our share of bullies and thugs passing themselves off as journalists. These people shamelessly exploit the advantages they enjoy as journalists to inflict cruelty on ordinary people — and to line the pockets of their masters.

The British press is not being persecuted. It is not under attack. As Leveson found, and as remains the case, there is no body of opinion in this country calling for the censorship or gagging of journalism, or for state controls or anything like it. Paul Dacre constantly asserts that there is. And I saw that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Savij Javid, claimed as much a week or so ago.

I would like to ask them both today: Mr Dacre, Mr Javid, who are you talking about? Name these advocates of state control. Who are your supposed censors and gaggers? Let’s not sink to the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, slinging around allegations of conspiracies without ever naming names. We know where that led.

What Leveson recommended in relation to press self-regulation was, as he made absolutely clear, NOT state control. Parliament would never have stomached such a thing. But every party in Parliament gave its support to the Royal Charter that — entirely independently of the state — implements those Leveson recommendations. And the result has been the creation of a recognition panel that, in the words of its chair, David Wolfe QC, is ‘appointed by a process which is unique in its independence from Government, Parliament and other influences’ and which has ‘a freedom from outside pressure not seen before in a public body’.

And if you don’t want to believe the assurances of a politician or a lawyer, here the words of a great editor, Harold Evans, who said:

“the misrepresentation of Leveson’s main proposal is staggering. To portray his careful construct for statutory underpinning as state control is a gross distortion”.

And remember, this body’s function is not to regulate the press. Its only job is to test whether self-regulators set up by news publishers meet the basic standards of independence and effectiveness needed to give the public confidence they will be treated fairly, if they have a complaint. This isn’t state control or anything like it.

But given the record of so many big newspapers — and as I say we are learning more every day — it is the very least that our society should be doing to protect citizens who often experience press abuse when they are at their most vulnerable, and who are usually not rich enough or experienced enough to take on these big corporations.

In modern Britain we do not stand by and watch the weak being persecuted. We do something — and this is probably the least we could have done.

But it’s unfinished business, because this little group of greedy, cruel men have raised two fingers to Leveson, to Parliament, to their victims and to the public.

They don’t want fairness,

They don’t want change.

No catalogue of the wrongdoing they have overseen would be long enough to shame them.

They want business as usual, so they want IPSO.

They have dusted down their utterly discredited Press Complaints Commission, applied a lick of paint and a new letterhead — literally — and a new name and announced to the world with their usual brazen dishonesty that they are complying with Leveson.

Well they are not, as the Advertising Standards Authority found — and told them. In fact IPSO would not get past base camp in any effort to satisfy the independent Recognition Panel. Which is why they are not even applying.

So, on the face of it, they continue to write their own code of conduct and continue to pull all of IPSO’s strings, ensuring that they can ignore that code whenever they choose. (And incredibly the chair of the code committee is the editor of the paper that breaks it most often — by far. You’ve guessed it: Mr Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail.)

And the victims of this are, and will be, ordinary, vulnerable people who are bullied, lied about and intruded upon — the very people you would like to think journalism is there to protect.

But here’s some more unfinished business. IPSO is not the only show in town. Another self-regulator, IMPRESS, is taking shape. Beyond having, in Walter Merricks, a very distinguished independent chair (which as we have seen from IPSO is no guarantee of anything), it appears to be constructing itself in a way that implements Leveson rather than rejects Leveson. And if it applies for recognition which I hope it will, it will change the rules of the game.

When Parliament endorsed the Royal Charter it also approved clause 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. And under that Act if a news publisher denies the public the advantages in terms of access to justice and fair treatment that go with recognised self-regulation, then there is a price to pay.

A paper can’t just say: we don’t offer cheap, quick arbitration in libel cases through our self-regulator, so bad luck, you’ll just have to sue us — if you can afford it.

A press corporation with deep pockets can’t rely on the huge costs of litigation to block justice and protect its wrongdoing. Under the Crime and Courts Act papers that refuse to join a recognised self-regulator offering arbitration will have to pay the costs of those who sue them — whether they win or lose.

In other words, it will become free to sue these titles — though of course you will have to have a case good enough to get to court. That’s the price these arrogant organisations will have to pay.

And we must always remember that the papers that are putting themselves in that position are not just behaving unfairly towards the public.

They are also knowingly rejecting the historic new protections for freedom of the press that Leveson offers.

That’s right — historic new protections for freedom of the press. The chill of existing libel laws would be removed by a new immunity for news publishers — and only such publishers — from court costs and from the risk of exemplary damages.

Because what the law now says is that any news publisher belonging to a recognised self-regulator can’t be bullied by wealthy institutions and individuals in the way they have been in the past. Just as the news publisher is obliged to offer cheap arbitration, so the wealthy complainant is obliged to accept it too. And if that wealthy complainant — say, an oligarch or a big supermarket chain involved in meat processing — insists on going to court, then it is the complainant who pays both sides’ costs, win or lose.

Now that’s what I call fair — and a brilliant new protection for our investigative journalists. But at the Sun and the Mail they don’t want it. And they don’t want any of their competitors to have it either in the name of “press unity”.

Unfinished business. Here’s some more.

You may not remember this, and of course no newspaper will tell you, but the Leveson Inquiry is only half done. The terms of reference approved by Parliament require a Leveson 2 — not necessarily led by the same judge.

And what job does it have?

It must do all the things that could not be done while prosecutions were pending. Who gave the orders for hacking, bribing and data theft? How far up did it go? Who organised the cover-ups? Why were police slow to act? Did lawyers behave improperly or illegally? How much evidence was destroyed and on whose orders? Has the criminality stopped? What are managements doing about it?

And — as the Watergate reporters Woodward and Bernstein would put it — who knew what and when?

None of this was done by Leveson 1. For sound legal reasons it had to tiptoe around these issues. It would need to take place after the criminal process had ended. But it is vital that Leveson 2 does begin as soon as the criminal cases are over. It is vital because the papers and others claim the police somehow got off lightly in Leveson. That is because they were not the main subject of investigation of Part 1.

The nexus between the police, acting corruptly and elements of the press, which has begun to be demonstrated by the work of citizen bloggers like Brown Moses, now Belingcat, by Nick Davies, by Panorama and other investigative journalists, and by the campaigning work of people like Alastair Morgan who will not let the murder of his brother Daniel so many years ago, remain unsolved. All those people are here today.

But it is vital also because if we don’t see this through we are sending the signal to editors and proprietors, and corrupt police officers and the politicians who let it happen that they can do it all again and get away with it.

And we are sending the signal to their victims that they don’t matter, and that we don’t care how many more people suffer.

Everything we know about the perpetrators tells us that they are not sorry and they have not changed. They’ve never, ever been sorry. They just look for new ways to hide their misdeeds. It has to stop.

And there is unfinished business for democratic politicians here.

One of the things we are elected to do is to ensure the weak are protected from the strong, the poor protected against the rich. We can’t walk away when that job is not done. We must keep working at it.

I see four important jobs ahead for us in Parliament.

The first is that we all — every party including my own — need to comply with the Leveson recommendations on the contacts we have with senior journalists, editors and proprietors. There is a lot of talk about the public’s right to know, well given the shabby history, the public has a clear right to know when their elected representatives are mixing with these people and why.

All parties need to do what the judge asked on that point.

The second job that falls to politicians is to ensure that we have real plurality in our news media and that no one company or individual is able to buy or build a market dominance that denies the public that plurality. I expect you know who I am thinking of when I say that, but he’s not the only one. There are huge online news providers, and they will probably be just as big a threat to a free and diverse media in the future. It is the job of our Parliament and our government to ensure, in the interests of democracy, that we have real space for a range of points of view and approaches in our news media, that it is not just the domain of a handful of big corporations.

And third, we must be on the look out for any opportunity to protect the freedoms that public interest journalism require to enhance our democracy. That means for example safeguarding the role in UK law, of the European Convention on Human Rights, which the newspapers frequently rely on to protect their legitimate interests, sometimes without any apparent recognition of the irony of their position.

It means for example seeking to amend the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 — the hacking law — to provide the same safeguards for journalists sources that exist in PACE — judicial oversight of a serious crime threshold.

I have been struck by the unlikely but welcome alliance to deliver that between the advocates at the Sun newspaper, the drafters and organisers at Hacked Off and the Parliamentary amendment-tablers of the Liberal Democrats backbench. A weird and scary combination.

It has always been a source of amusement that in Tony Blair’s 400 page memoir, he admits to only making two mistakes, one of which is the Freedom of Information Act. “You idiot” says Tony in the passage describing the Act. “You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop,” he goes on to say.

“There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.” he says of his decision to support the Act.

It’s funny because I love the Freedom of Information Act. In recent years it has helped me establish that we have UK military personnel stationed in a US Airforce Base in Djabouti, thought by many to run the covert drones programme in Yemen and Somalia. It has allowed me to establish the contents of the ministerial wine cellar and that when 1200 of my constituents were having their kitchen and bathroom refurbishment cancelled by cuts at the DCLG, David Cameron was spending £30,000 to refurbish the kitchen in the Downing Street flat.

If I can do this, imagine what a proper journalist can do with this Act. But it has holes. I want to see a future Labour government give something back to journalism by increasing the statutory obligations on public institutions and private ones contracted in the public sector, to disclose information in a more timely fashion.

And finally, we in Parliament must see through our promises to the people and to the victims when it comes to press self-regulation. To do what lord Justice Leveson said we needed to do if the press rejected his recommendations in the face of parliamentary approval of them. I am a Labour MP, and I want my party to commit in its manifesto to take action if the independent recognition panel produces what is called a ‘failure report’ late next year. That is to say, if it concludes that the conditions sought by Lord Justice Leveson have not been met.

A manifesto commitment is vital. Voters, and also the victims of press abuse, have to know where the parties stand on this — before the election. Nothing less is right or just.

We have had a rare all-party consensus on this. Now all the parties must be open and clear. Do they still believe in the Leveson recommendations and the Charter, or are they quietly getting back into bed with the editors and proprietors? The public has a right to know.

John Major said at the Leveson Inquiry, when commenting of the serial failures of previous attempts at effective independent self-regulation, up to and including Calcutt in his time. “It is politicians who are in the Last Chance Saloon”.

I want my party to accept the John Major challenge.

That is why I will be campaigning for a commitment in the Labour manifesto to see Leveson through. I hope the other parties will match it, and if they don’t I know the public will judge them harshly, because they will be letting down the victims they promised to protect, and whom they have a duty to protect.

Finally, I want to send this message to the editors and proprietors.

You are in the business of exposure, but now, at last, it is you who have been exposed. Every day, more of your wrongdoings are being laid bare. And every day you make your position worse by trying to hide the evidence from your readers, by your special pleading, by your lies and your attempts to intimidate.

In your pages you never hesitate to lecture and attack others on all sorts of matters, sometimes justly and sometimes not. But you never judge yourselves and you can’t admit that others have that right — even our courts and our public inquiries.

Well your time is up. Your lies don’t work any more. The public is not fooled. It saw clean through you back in 2011, after the terrible scandals of the McCanns, Christopher Jefferies and Milly Dowler, and it still sees through you today.

All your efforts to trick the public into believing that there is some threat to freedom of expression have failed. There is no such threat in Leveson, in the Royal Charter or among my colleagues in Parliament, and you have not produced a shred of serious evidence to show there is.

Where there is a threat to freedom it comes from you. You have shown again and again that you don’t care about freedom of expression.

You have never told the truth about your wrongdoings and you do all you can to suppress reporting of them.

You don’t care about the freedom of journalists to report on systematic intrusion into all our lives by the security services. If you did, you would not have called for the prosecution of the Guardian in the Snowden affair.

You don’t care about the freedom that ordinary British people should enjoy from cruel treatment by your employees. Nor do you care about their right to have access to justice.

The only freedom you care about is your own, to do exactly what you like, without consequences.

Your time is up. And I want to name you: Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, Richard Desmond, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, the board of Trinity Mirror. Yes there is unfinished business, but you make no mistake, it will be finished.

British journalism will be raised from the mire into which you and others have sunk it and British citizens will be given the protections to which they are entitled. And as Lord Justice Leveson showed, this can and will be done while the same time freedom of expression in this country is enhanced.


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    According to the Sun newspaper, Watson is a fundamentalist zealot who denounces any deviation from socialism. Also author of a book on corruption by NewsCorp.