Brian Cathcart digs deeper into the volteface by Britain’s leading liberal newspaper following the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics and practices of the press – and how its lack of support hurt the wider cause of press reform

A decade ago, you might remember, the Guardian was on the warpath about press regulation. Fired with reforming zeal after exposing the phone-hacking scandal, Britain’s leading liberal newspaper had declared that the old Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was a disgrace to the industry and was demanding urgent change.

As the Leveson Inquiry unfolded through 2011 and 2012 – a public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press which was set up following the phone-hacking scandal and led by Sir Brian Leveson – the Guardian distilled its ideas into detailed proposals.

A real regulator, the newspaper said, must have teeth and be independent. Though membership should not be required by law, there should be carrots and sticks to push papers into participating. A decent regulator, it also argued, should provide an arbitration service to handle libel and privacy cases at low cost. 

The Guardian was at the forefront of the reform cause and poll after poll showed that its readers and the general public were right behind it. Raising two fingers to the sulking, recalcitrant corporate papers, it held out the prospect of a better world of accountable, ethical journalism that was shielded from the bullying of rich litigants. 

What happened to all of that?

It is obvious that the better world did not materialise. Neither did a regulator with teeth, still less an independent one. Yet the Guardian is now silent on the issue – indeed it is quiet about problems in journalism in general and it offers no criticism in its editorial columns of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), the failing replacement for the PCC.

Were the newspaper’s hopes dashed? Was it betrayed? Or did it just change its mind and decide – without any form of announcement to its readers – that this cause, to which it had brought so much energy, was not worth the candle? 

What the Guardian Didn’t Do

In my days at Hacked Off – the press reform campaigning group which I co-founded – I was close to these matters, attending a number of meetings with Guardian executives, and I was baffled by the newspaper’s conduct.

Now I have revisited what happened in an article for Political Quarterly entitled ‘The Guardian and Press Reform: A Wheel Come Full Circle’.

I did something simple. I went back over the newspaper’s editorials and other public statements and plotted the evolution of its policy. It follows that I did not uncover secrets. I cannot say, for example, whether the Guardian crumpled under the pressure of the big newspaper companies or whether the change in stance resulted from an internal coup. Nonetheless, I believe the exercise shed light, not least by identifying a few things that did not happen. 

For example:

  • The Guardian did not reject the reforms of 2013 because Sir Brian Leveson, the inquiry chair, failed to give it what it wanted. In fact, the judge’s recommendations were remarkably close to the position adopted by the Guardian at the end of the inquiry. 
  • It did not reject the reforms as a matter of principle because statute was involved. In fact, the Guardian had argued that legislation was justified for specific purposes, including those that proved relevant. 
  • It did not reject the reforms because politicians meddled with them. It always understood that political intervention was inevitable and, though it had reservations about the form this took, by the end it had explicitly accepted the process. 
  • It did not reject the reform package approved by Parliament on the grounds that it involved the use of a royal charter. In fact, the newspaper declared the charter to be “a reasonable solution to a difficult problem”.
  • It did not reject the legal measures relating to court costs on the grounds that parties which won libel actions might nonetheless find themselves paying both sides’ costs. The Guardian itself had suggested something similar.  

What is most striking, looking back over the newspaper’s policy statements in 2013 and 2014, is that it never set out a coherent rationale for rejecting the reforms. Instead it wrung its hands about the absence of consensus – as if somehow it thought the Sun and the Mail susceptible to reason – and simply allowed itself to drift into irrelevance. 

One clue as to why this might have occurred may be found a little further in time, before the journalist Nick Davies’s phone-hacking revelations of 2009. Back then, it is clear, the Guardian had little interest in press regulation. 

Reverse Ferreting

Nick Davies himself had exposed the abject failure of the PCC as a regulator in his book Flat Earth News in 2008, but the Guardian offered no editorial comment on this at the time. Nor had it spoken out about regulatory failure during the Madeleine McCann affair of 2007. Instead, it quietly accepted what has been called the industry’s ‘party line’ – that the PCC did a decent job. 

Only when the newspaper itself became a victim of PCC bias did it publicly demand reform. The Guardian had appealed to the PCC to vindicate its case on phone-hacking in the face of denials from the Murdoch organisation, and the PCC shamelessly did the reverse – clearing the News of the World and questioning the Guardian’s journalism. 

So far as I can see, concern for victims of unethical reporting has never had prominence in Guardian editorials. It might be argued, therefore, that when the Guardian abandoned the cause of regulatory reform it was not deserting victims – because it had never really dedicated itself to their interests. It is a rare point, in this context, on which consistency might be claimed, though it is hardly to the newspaper’s credit. 

The inconsistencies become flagrant around 2017 and 2018, when the Guardian came out fighting for the other side. 

When cancelling Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry – which would have investigated the relationship between journalists and the police – came under discussion, the Guardian allied itself with the Conservative Government of Theresa May, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Murdoch press, the Rothermere press and the rest of the big newspaper groups.

(In the other camp, saying that the inquiry should go ahead, were, among others, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, Sir Brian Leveson and Nick Davies). 

The Guardian’s engagement was low-key – just a couple of editorials and a submission to the Government consultation that was not made public at the time – though that did not prevent the then Culture Secretary Matt Hancock from boasting about the newspaper’s support in a Commons debate. 

Those editorials and the submission are replete with the kind of inconsistency the press knows as a ‘reverse ferret’:

  • The newspaper that had once insisted that the truth about hacking and other illegal practices must come out no matter how long it took, and that those ultimately responsible must without fail face the consequences, now dismissed this approach as navigating by the rear-view mirror.
  • The newspaper that proposed to Leveson that those who unreasonably insisted on taking libel and privacy cases to court should pay both sides’ costs now declared that such an arrangement would offend against natural justice. 
  • The newspaper that declared that judges could not be trusted to exercise discretion where that discretion was clearly limited by law now argued that judges should be trusted where there were no legal limits at all.
  • The newspaper that had once backed regulation by the PCC and then argued in minute detail about how to improve regulation now warned, bizarrely, that “Leveson 2 would raise the threat of press regulation”. 
  • The newspaper that proposed measures for protecting journalism from “chilling” by rich litigants now declared that those same measures would encourage chilling.

No attempt was made to reconcile the past with the present. It was as though those responsible for the Guardian’s policy in 2018 had no idea what the newspaper had stood for, argued for and was so widely applauded for, just five years earlier. 

A Blow to Wider Reform

Does this matter? Well it certainly made a difference that the Guardian stepped away from regulatory reform rather than endorsing and embracing it.

To have had a national newspaper putting Leveson’s scheme into practice and arguing for it might well have tipped the balance in favour of wider change in the industry. That would have taken time and involved further controversy, but it would have brought hope and support to individuals and groups who continue to suffer as a result of press abuses. 

Wrapped as it is in a kind of sullen denial, the Guardian’s retreat is surely also sad from the newspaper’s own perspective. It did the right and brave thing when it exposed phone-hacking, just as it later did the right thing over Edward Snowden.

But, in the case of hacking, any pride it may feel must now be qualified by the newspaper’s failure to follow through – or at least to give a decent account of what happened.  

Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)


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