Thoughts on Leveson:what is not in the press?

English: First issue of News of the World, Oct...

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One thing that has struck me about the Leveson enquiry is how it has stayed away from discussing what is not published.  At the moment, we are focused on the various methods the press did, or did not, use to get information for stories.  Yet, what has not been pursued is the issue of stories not published.

A well known figure in the industry is Max Clifford and he is as well known (and well paid) for the stories he gets published as well as the ones he keeps out of the press.

Therein becomes the interesting dog that did not bark in the Leveson inquiry.  What are the stories that have been unpublished by editors and papers?  In doing this, did they “trade” these stories for better coverage, or other stories?  When editors engage in this practice, it raises the question of whether they are operating in the public interest or their own interest.  If a story is good enough to print, because of the public interest, yet is buried because of political pressure, organisational pressure, or because it is to be leveraged into a better story, the public interest becomes uncertain.

The pressure can come from a variety of sources as the film the Insider portrayed.  In that movie, based on real events (if dramatised for the screen) CBS 60 minutes was told by CBS corporate not to run the story revealing Big Tobacco‘s use of enhancing the addictive properties within the cigarettes.  CBS corporate was concerned that a Big Tobacco lawsuit would undermine the pending sale of CBS to Westinghouse Electric corporation. For a fuller discussion of these points see the following link

In terms of politics, it gets to a core political issue of whether, and how, politicians and editors trade in information about political decisions. For the most part, the trade or activity is benign and part of the political process. The media are a stakeholder and an important conduit to the public.  In that regard, it serves a useful purpose for both parties. The trade in political information is needed for a democracy to flourish.

What remains to be seen, and is still unasked, is what happens (and how does it work) when the press start to pressure the politicians to make and change political decision that relate to the press but not the public’s interest. In this sense, the political process of information sharing and distribution becomes subverted for personal or organisational purposes.  For example,

At the same time, the media was putting an MP under surveillance, which raises questions about what information they sought to get and for what purpose.  In themselves, these actions raises question about the ethics of the media.  However, the deeper issue is what was it that was intended with any of the information obtained?  Was the News of the World intending to use this information as political leverage or to supply it to its political allies or to the political opponents of the politicians pursuing the case?

At its heart, the dog that has not barked is whether the democratic process, by which the democratic mandate is achieved and maintained has been lost.  If the democratic process has been, and continued to be subverted in this way, what does this say about the democratic mandate or the fate democracy in its birthplace?



About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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9 Responses to Thoughts on Leveson:what is not in the press?

  1. rob says:

    Very interesting that most of the political phone hacking targets on which stories have emerged appear to have been on the left although for the time covered there was a leftish Government in power.

    Could it be that those on the right were targeted but stories suppressed so the vested interests (most of the media has a right of centre position) could sway their ideas onto their chosen leaders for their eventual takeover of power?

    Rupert Murdoch generally has a right of centre stance but only supports those he sees as winners so either approach of exposing/suppressing stories can work for him either way dependent on the current political climate..

    • lawrence serewicz says:

      Thanks for another interesting comment.

      I am not sure if political orientation was a factor. There may be an inherent bias, but that is harder to show with such pragmatic people. The underlying question is what stories are considered in the public interest and which ones are not considered in the public interest. If the press, and the press alone, can determine the public interest, does that undermine the public good? Does that weaken democracy by weakening the democratic mandate of those elected by the people?

  2. I think the case of my brother Daniel’s murder is a classic in this context. The polive have admitted there was corruption in the first investigation (I think it went much farther than that). We knew this 24+ years ago, but no one in the national media would investigate. We now know, of course, that NI and MGN were deeply involved in lucrative criminal activity with the suspects.

    As a result, this scandalous case was redacted from the public consciousness for two decades and corruption of the police and media continued for years, unabated.

    • lawrence serewicz says:

      Thanks for the post. Yes, your brother’s murder was something I was considering in this post. I was also considering the use of the press by politicians and how the press may influence politicians by threatening and withdrawing stories to extract further information or cooperation of a sort.

      I think you also touch on an important issue of the public’s memory and how it is sustained. I read of your brother’s murder when the first case collapsed. I was in London at the time, by chance, and thought that the story sounded (to use a British phrase “a bit dodgy”) as my academic background gives me a sensitivity to the use of power and authority particularly in its political application such as the use by the police. I never knew it was connected to the current phonehacking scandal until the stories started to bubble up and my memory was sparked again to consider the previous story afresh.

      • I think it was the genesis of the phone hacking scandal. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Southern Investigations became the hub of a corrupt network of police selling stories chiefly to NoW, but also MGN and other publishers. By stubbornly hiding their own corrupt involvement in the murder, the Met allowed this to proliferate. They set the standard. The Met bear a huge responsibility for allowing this scandal to develop.

        Other culprits have been successive governments. We have been warning the Home Office about corruption and cover-up in the case for twenty-+ years. It’s been like talking to a wall.
        Most of the media, of course, have shown little interest in exposing this, having been in bed with the suspects. It’s been a nightmare trying to punch through these layers of self-interest and we still don’t know the full extent of the corruption, but it goes right to the top. This is the dirtiest corner of the whole scandal.

      • lawrence serewicz says:

        I think you are right about the phone hacking scandal. What worries me, though, is that the events only revealed rather than created the corruption. Moreover, the actions that followed seemed to embed the problem rather than remove it. I hope we can find out what happened, why, and who benefited from allowing it to happen.

        There has to be more to this than money. People can be bought and sold, but the power to influence is harder to replicate and is much more valuable. Power is getting people to obey your will, to move things, or not, through space and time. Power that has to be exercised, demonstrated, is weaker than power that works on influence or suggestion. We are witnessing the dying of one political establishment and it remains to be seen whether a more (or less) democratic age emerges from its dark shadow.

        The deep unasked, and as yet unanswered, question is whether the police can be reformed. DO the politicians have the appetite, do the public have the interest, and do the press have integrity to help reform the police? We shall see.

  3. peterjukes says:

    Exactly the line I’m following in my book Lawrence. Throughout his career Murdoch has treated news as a currency rather than a form of disclosure. Right back to the Black Jack McEwen and Gough Whitlam sagas in Australia, he has sat on huge stories and scoops because it suited his interests. Much of News International’s behaviour was as an ‘anti news’ organisation, suppressing stories for favoured candidates, or in return for other favours.


    • lawrence serewicz says:

      Thanks for the comment. I will have to check out your book. I would be interested in how editors consider these types of situations where sitting on the story might be better or them. In the News of the World situation, it appeard dysfunctional, as you mention, as it was used for HIS interestes and not the public interest. I always ask editors and reporters, when I get the chance at conferences, this question because what is NOT publishsed is as important, for their decision making (and their avowed statement that they are working in the public interest) , as what is published. To paraphrase, there are sins of commission and there are sins of ommission.

      Thanks again for the comment.

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