What could be better than absorbing an important bit of press history by attending a public inquiry into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the British press?
This, I thought to myself as I walked along The Strand yesterday, is how you really #partylikeajournalist in a foreign city.
“Right,” said the woman at the information desk when I asked for directions to the Leveson media tent. “Walk straight to the end of the main hallway through the two arches — you can of course choose which one to go through — then turn to the right and walk to the end of the hallway. Exit outside and there’s a big marquee. You can’t miss it.”
Right she was.
I walked the hallway laid with mosaic floors, as the sun poured through the windows high atop the hundreds years-old building. I looked up at portraits of what I could only assume were eminent justices of the past. Two barristers brushed past me, decked out in robes and wigs. Visions of the Magna Carta danced in my head.
‘It’s a recurring cycle’
The idea to visit Leveson occurred during a morning meeting with Martin Moore of the Media Standards Trust, an organization that builds tools to encourage media transparency, and that also advocates on behalf of greater press accountability. Moore was twice a witness at Leveson, first on February 8, and more recently on July 10, when he advocated for a new form of press self-regulation.
For his July testimony, Moore delivered as his written submission a substantive document that outlined a proposal to overhaul self-regulation of the British press, “A Free and Accountable Media.”
We met on Tuesday morning and he handed me a hard copy just over 100 pages, written by Moore and Dr. Gordon Neil Ramsay, a Media Standards Trust research fellow, in conjunction with a distinguished panel of reviewers.
Moore said that Leveson was merely the latest in a series of inquires into the British press.
“It’s a recurring cycle,” he told me.
There have been Royal Commissions on the press in 1947-49, 1961-62, 1974-77.
“Each time, reform of self-regulation has been recommended; each time, the press has avoided implementing these reforms in full,” Moore et al wrote in their submission.
There were also two related reports issued in 1990 and 1993, the latter of which, they wrote, “noted with some anger that — again — changes had been self-serving and insufficient. The phrase ‘last chance saloon’, when used with regard to the British press, has attained the status of parody.”
Then phone hacking happened. And now: Leveson.
The public hearings started in November and will wrap up soon. Justice Leveson is expected to deliver his report in October, close to a year after hearings began.
Moore recommended I go to witness the process in action. Don’t bother with the courtroom, he advised, head to the press tent outside. I was promised a more interesting atmosphere among my colleagues, and a better chance to hear and view the proceedings. The sight lines in courtroom 73, apparently, aren’t too conducive to reporting.
Dull and dreary
“Are you press?” asked a woman in a black robe seated near the back of the tent.
I realized I had no press card with me. Not even a business card.
“Yes,” I whispered. “Okay,” she said.
I was in.
The tent was more substantial than I’d expected. Its top was strung with a canvas-like fabric, while the sides were permanent — like a mobile home. I counted roughly 170 chairs on the press side of the tent.
The side reserved for members of the public was, as far as I could tell, exactly the same: several large televisions sat at the front of the room showing, variously, a video feed from the courtroom, a live transcript of the proceedings, and any relevant background documents.
There was a row of heaters/air conditioners at the front, along with several photocopiers, secured — along with the TVs — behind a red rope line. Signs on the wall reminded us that eating, drinking, photography and recording were forbidden. (So much for partying like a journalist.)
Of the roughly 170 chairs only one was occupied by another member of the press. Or, to put it more accurately, there was at least one other man who’d answered yes when asked if he was press.
There was also a lone man on the public side. He sat in the front row.
We journalists gravitated more toward the middle. You know, to blend in.
At one point the other journalist thumped on his chest, near his heart, with a closed fist. It was either minor angina or perhaps an attempt to stimulate a flagging circulation system. Based on the testimony taking place on screen, I guessed the latter.
The witness at Leveson that morning was a lawyer with the country’s data protection office. That meant a lawyer was questioning a lawyer, under the watchful eye of another lawyer turned judge.
At one point, the lawyer asking the questions zeroed in on one issue to see if it was open for debate and interpretation. The witness agreed it was.
“There’s always room for argument,” Leveson said, a twinkle in his eye.
“In our trade,” the witness agreed.
The journalist in front of me, who wore a short-sleeved white dress shirt and a tie, flipped through the pages of the witness’ submission. When the witness was excused and Leveson took a short break, I moved up a few rows to ask him how this day compared to others.
“This is a dull phase,” he told me, referring to the fact that Leveson was now in the final of four “modules.” This one is looking at possible regulatory regimes and “ways forward for the future.”
The reporter turned to the woman at the back in the black robe. “This may have been the dullest day,” he said. “What do you say, the dullest day so far?”
His name was Brian Farmer and he was with Press Association, the national newswire. It was his job to write up anything interesting that had happened. He didn’t think there was anything to write about the morning thus far. The stuff he and others from the PA have been writing of late wasn’t getting much interest, either.
“It’s not making it in the paper,” he said. “There’s no celebrities, just endless dreary testimony … yesterday they had a bunch of philosophers talking about the underlying philosophical idea of freedoms.”
“I don’t know what to write about today, it’s dull,” Farmer said.
He was rolling his eyes with his words.
“The Guardian tends to be running it on their website, but that’s almost like a trade journal,” he said, referring to the fact that The Guardian does a lot of media coverage and broke the phone hacking story news that led to the Leveson inquiry.
I asked if there were more journalists present when some of the big media executives testified.
Sometimes, he said. Some celebrities and prominent people had also testified.
“They all say the same thing, really: you must allow for serious investigative stories,” Farmer said, “but I don’t want anyone to write them about me.”
It must have been full when Hugh Grant testified, right?
“Oh it was jammed, it was teeming,” he said. “When Hugh Grant was here it was quite fun.”
The woman at the back agreed.
“Politicians are the other one,” Farmer said. “Celebrities and politicians. [Culture Secretary] Jeremy Hunt giving evidence and [former prime ministers] John Major and Tony Blair, and when Rupert Murdoch came.”
I asked who was up in the afternoon, though I wasn’t able to stay.
“I think it’s Ofcom,” he said, referring to the British communications regulator. “It can’t be anybody exciting.”
Farmer flipped to the next day’s agenda and saw some hope. Max Mosley, the former head of Formula One, was first up in the morning. He was kind of a celebrity.
Of course, he’d already testified previously about his own experience with the tabloids. Mosley won a court decision in 2008 against Murdoch’s News of the World after the paper played up a false front page story that Mosley had participated in a Nazi-themed orgy.
“They spelled his name wrong,” Farmer said, holding his finger under Mosley’s mangled last name on the witness sheet.
Tomorrow promised a better day, but it seemed all the action at Leveson had taken place months ago, when the Inquiry looked at the practices of the tabloids, and the relationship between the press and the police.
Moore told me that because of the phone hacking investigation and ongoing prosecutions, Leveson hadn’t been able to delve into who did what and when. So instead the Inquiry moved into other areas of the press, such as ownership and regulation.
Given the history of press inquiries, I couldn’t help wonder if I’d stumbled upon the early phase of the inquiry-recommendation-inaction cycle kicking into gear.
“This is the first day, if you discount you, that I’m the only one,” Farmer told me.
It’s like I wasn’t even there.