Stop the press: the media after Leveson

Sunday 21 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Pit Theatre

When education secretary and former journalist Michael Gove expressed concerns that the Leveson Inquiry might have a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech, Lord Leveson responded by insisting, ‘I do not need to be told about the importance of freedom of speech’. But given the powerful momentum behind the Leveson Inquiry, might we all benefit from asking what the lord justice’s judicial juggernaut means for the future of the free press?

The Inquiry began in the wake of phone-hacking allegations, setting its sights on culture, practices and ethics of the media in general. There has been no shortage of witnesses queuing up to express their disdain for the unethical way the media has operated. The Inquiry has provided quite a spectacle, with everyone from irate celebrities to cabinet ministers and ex-PMs, and of course the Murdoch family, appearing before the Lord Justice and his army of lawyers. The daily cross-examinations, readings of private emails and texts have become a surprise online hit show among the chattering classes. But is this anything beyond a show trial, an elitist attack on the ‘gutter press’? The Leveson Inquiry’s avowed aim is to reassure the public that the beasts of Fleet Street would be tamed. But is a tame press a healthy outcome? While in principle, everyone supports the idea of a free press, there seems to be a greater appetite for restraining renegade reporters. If we don’t tighten regulation of the press, people ask, what’s to stop it plumbing further depths? Whatever the faults of contemporary media culture, however, it is worth remembering that the modern media has its origins in the radical pamphlets and often scurrilous periodicals of the eighteenth century. While the authorities sought to censor them, the judgement of history is that a free press is worth having regardless of how venal it sometimes is. As Karl Marx said, you cannot have the rose without the thorn. Without total freedom of the press, are we jeopardising the role of the media as a check on politicians, institutions and businesses? Do we even have a free enough press as it stands?

Leveson’s critics are accused of creating straw men when they warn of state interference in the media, but isn’t the Leveson Inquiry itself a form of state interference? Leveson opened the inquiry saying its central question was, ‘who guards the guardians?’. But with the inquiry expanding into an interrogation of the entire British system of politics and government – and Leveson even suggesting Gove had no right to raise concerns until the inquiry had ruled - who can we expect to scrutinise unelected, unaccountable judges if the press is cowed?

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Professor George Brock
head of journalism, City University London; author, Out of Print: newspapers, journalism and the business of news in the Digital Age

Mick Hume
editor-at-large, online magazine spiked; author, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?

Christina Patterson
writer, broadcaster and columnist

Raymond Snoddy
freelance journalist; former presenter, BBC NewsWatch; author, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Patrick Hayes
director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)

Produced by
Patrick Hayes director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)
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