Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Leveson in the dock over handling of Press inquiry

The noble judge failed to extend the basic rules of evidence to newspapers outside London, says Mike Gilson

Lord Justice Leveson with the Report from the Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press

Imagine a defendant in a criminal trial, let's say fraud, found guilty on the flimsiest of evidence. What's worse, during the trial the defendant finds himself squeezed into the dock with others similarly accused and given half-a-day out of a three-month sitting to argue his case.

It would be ruled a mistrial, right? The defendant would have another chance to prove his innocence.

I am trying to avoid being too melodramatic when I say that is somewhat how I feel about the noble Lord Justice Leveson and his hearings on Press standards.

For Leveson, the UK's regional Press were but a bit part, an extra in a widescreen epic about clandestine meetings in the corridors of power, or in the fields of Gloucestershire and sinister, burly men chasing beautiful heroines down London streets in the dark of night.

I kind of guessed this when I turned up for my own appearance on the Sir Brian talk show. If you really want to, you can see me on the Leveson website.

I am there with three other newspaper editors from Scotland and Wales, crammed behind a desk which doesn't have enough space for us all. One of the Scots who couldn't fit on to the platform has only his head and shoulders visible on the screen.

I don't recall the charming Mr Grant, nor the fragrant Ms Miller, having to put up with such indignities. The thespians were also given a lot more time than the two hours we four - looking like defendants in a mid-ranking Mafia show-trial - were allowed to try to put our case.

I'm going to stop using the words 'regional Press' here and substitute the phrase 'newspapers outside of London'.

For the very words regional Press have become a form of patronisation.

The Leveson report itself seemed to imagine a bucolic newspaper world of harmless public information reports interspersed with agricultural show results and shed burglary items.

Given the lack of co-operation from police forces across the UK, a chance finding of the latter in the Auchtermuchty Bugle would be a pleasant surprise.

He patted us on the head and said it wasn't really about us. But while some of the local Press is in a pretty poor, supine state, in big cities like Belfast, Bristol and Newcastle and in Scotland and Wales, there are robust titles still lifting the rocks to find out what lies underneath.

Yet what did we really get from Leveson? A few paragraphs in his 2,000-page report and a proposal to put us under some form of statutory legislation for our pains.

Newspapers outside of London have a total of 33million readers every week, far above the combined circulation of those based in the capital.

National newspapers in Northern Ireland, like the Belfast Telegraph, Scotland and Wales are read by more people in their circulation areas than the posh papers of London combined.

Yet today, David Cameron will meet with London editors as he tries to find a way out of the mess Leveson left him. No journalist from Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, the devolved nations, will be there.

That is not to say that I wish to divide and rule. What's bad for the Belfast Telegraph (any form of Government involvement in the free Press) is also bad for the Financial Times, The Sun and the Banbury Cake (yes, it does exist).

The problem was that, by not taking seriously enough the reading material seen by those 33million pairs of eyes, Sir Brian was bound to get a totally skewed picture.

Putting aside the fact that most of the abuses of Press power he heard about were already covered by laws, he denied himself evidence of the hundreds of stories that shed light on corruption, uncover miscarriage of justice, or reveal poor governance every week in the Press, both in London and, as importantly, outside.

Had he done so, his argument for some form of parliamentary involvement by statute in the running of the Press would have been even weaker than it is now.

As any good criminal lawyer will tell you, a trial in which all the evidence is not heard, nor given equal consideration, and whose verdict seems somewhat preordained, leads pretty swiftly to the Appeal Court.

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