Leveson: Shami and I are both totally confused

December 5, 2012 at 12:26 am (Civil liberties, Free Speech, Jim D, media, reblogged)

Some of you may have noticed that none of us at Shiraz has had anything to say about the Leveson report.

Speaking for myself, that’s because I’m totally confused by the issues at stake, and have a lot of sympathy of all sides of the argument. Thus my silence.

But (I’m relieved to note) I’m not the only one to be confused:

Shami Chakrabarti supports Cameron on Leveson but is too scared to admit it

By   Last updated:  December 4th, 2012

Above: Shami has, uncharacteristically, bottled it

Just what is Liberty’s stance on the Leveson report? On Sunday morning the organisation’s director Shami Chakrabarti appeared to take a clear, and principled, stance on the Leveson proposals. “A compulsory statute to regulate media ethics in the way the report suggests would violate the Act, and I cannot support it. It would mean the Press was being coerced in being held to higher standards than anyone else, and this would be unlawful,” she told the Mail on Sunday.

By lunchtime her position seemed to be shifting. Her views had been misrepresented, she told Andrew Marr. She had not delivered a “bombshell” to the report (though in fact she had herself used that very phrase in an earlier BBC interview). Instead she had merely said she could not support statutory compulsion were members of the press to refuse to sign up to a new independent regulatory body. It was only at that point, she claimed, that she would “get off the bus”.

But then – just to further confuse matters – a few hours later she issued a third statement, which indicated she had in fact got off the bus a few stops earlier. Not only did she oppose statutory compulsion in the event of non-compliance by the press, but she also rejected the suggestion that any legislation was required to establish an independent regulator he first place. “No statute is needed to create such a body and editors and proprietors should take the Leveson characteristics and seek to build one without delay” she said on the Liberty website.

All fairly clear then. No need for legislation, and a libertarian feather in the cap of David Cameron.

Then yesterday morning, on the Today programme, up popped Shami again. And this time not only was she back on the bus, but she was driving the thing. Now she fully supported legislation to establish the “Recogniser”, the rather shadowy figure whose role it would be to pass judgment every three years on whether the press were behaving themselves. What’s more, she fully supported legislation to “incentivise” the press to join this new statutory body. Neat word, incentivise: “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you have to join, Mr Editor. But put it this way, it would be much easier on both of us if you did.”

This morning I phoned Liberty to try and clarify precisely what the foremost national campaigners for free speech rally thinks of establishing regulation of the press via statute. And it was instructive.

According to Liberty’s Policy Director, the indefatigably polite and patient Isabella Sankey, Liberty is not in favor of establishing a statutory press regulatory body. But they would potentially be in favour of legislation that laid out “in the abstract” criteria to govern the principles any new independent regulator, or regulators, should meet.

These should not, according to Liberty, be too prescriptive. But they could extend to stipulating that the new body or bodies should have the power to fine, have powers to enforce corrections and apologies and contain an arbitration arm.

Liberty says that no member of the press should be forced or coerced via statute into joining any new regulatory body. But they could – that word again – be incentivised. Two specific “incentives” Liberty supports are the enforcement of costs upon non-members of the regulatory body, even in legal cases where they have successfully defended their journalism. And a change in the law to allow exemplary damages to be awarded for breaches of privacy, with a higher penalty being levied on non-members found to be in breach of the law.

When I put it to Isabella Sankey that what Liberty regards as statutory incentives to membership others could define as statutory sanctions for non-membership, she rejected that characterisation.

But interestingly, when I asked whether Liberty felt legislation would be required even in circumstances where the newspaper editors agreed to voluntarily implementation of the Leveson principles, she replied: “No. Statutory underpinning doesn’t have to happen. We would have concerns that without it once the current political consensus for action dissipates there is a danger we could drift back to the status quo. But we would be prepared to give the press time to bring in a new system and see how it operates.”

If this appears Liberty are dancing on the head of a legislative pin, it’s because they are. And there are three very clear reasons for this.

The first is that Shami Chakrabarti made a monumental blunder in agreeing to be an official part of the Leveson inquiry in the first-place. It has clearly compromised her ability to pass judgment on the proposals, as her contortions over the last 72 hours have shown.

Secondly, Chakrabarti has made the schoolgirl error of basing her stance on the belief her enemy’s enemies are her friends. Faced with the perception of aligning herself with the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre, she has instead tried to line up behind those trying to break a 300-year-old principle of press independence from statute. There will be some arguing eloquently for that breach of liberal precedent. But the director of Liberty has no place being amongst them.

And the third reason is that – uncharacteristically – Shami Chakrabarti has bottled it. By her own admission, she rejects Lord Leveson’s suggestion of forcing the press to join a new statutory body. She also rejects his idea of Ofcom adopting an ultimate oversight role. And as Liberty has confirmed today, she does not actually believe that primary legislation is necessary if the press agree to voluntary implementation of the Leveson principles.

So on what everyone aggrees are the real fundamentals of the Leveson report, Shami Chakrabarti disagrees with Leveson, the victims, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and the rest of the pro-Leveson chorus, and actually supports the stance of David Cameron and the newspaper editors. She doesn’t want anyone to know it. Scared of being seen to be out of step with what she currently perceives to be popular opinion, she is trying to dodge and weave and nuance her way into having her cake and legislating for it.

Which is fine. Some people will say it’s clever politics. Others that she has no choice but to try to reflect widely divergent shades of liberal opinion on what is a complex issue.

But on an issue like this, if you’re director of Liberty, you need to be leading with courage and clarity and principle. Shami Chakrabarti – unusually – has become a follower, not a leader.

12 Comments

  1. Kellie said,

    Hodges is the one who is confused. He picks out the line from Shami Chakrabarti’s Sunday statement saying that “no statute is needed” to establish an independent regulator, and spins this as opposition to legislation, but the very same statement from Chakrabarti says that Liberty “would be perfectly content with a simple statute offering greater certainty and protection to those publications who took the trouble to join and comply with an independent regulatory body.”

    When Hodges represents her later repeating this on the Today programme as some kind of change in position, this shows that either he hasn’t read the earlier statement properly or he’s just decided to cherrypick and distort her words.

    http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/news/2012/liberty-leveson-and-the-culture-practice-and-ethics-of-t.php

  2. Jim Denham said,

    What about this from Shami…

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/leveson-i-feel-for-the-victims-of-press-intrusion-but-some-principles-must-remain-sacred-8372432.html

    …in last Friday’s ‘Independent’, Kellie?

    Here’s what Shami wrote:

    Lord Justice Leveson was handed a daunting and unenviable task, but he has produced a report that makes good sense for the public, the press and politicians alike.

    Aside from understandable concerns over the impact upon free speech, there is a growing consensus in favour of what has been proposed. Across the political parties and within the press themselves, there seems to be an agreement that Leveson’s main principles are sensible ones. He suggests a robust new self-regulator of the press – independent not only of politicians but also of editors and proprietors. The scheme would be voluntary but members who comply could enjoy rewards, such as protection from exemplary damages.

    With far more clout than the toothless PCC, the new body would have the power to impose fines, conduct investigations and order corrections and apologies. The public would get greater access to swift and affordable redress when breaches do occur.

    Crucially, the only new legislation involved might be a statute setting out the characteristics that any regulatory group would need to meet to gain the legal incentives discussed. The law would not establish the watchdog itself. It would not be compulsory for newspapers to form such a body – nor would it be compulsory for one to conform to its standards.

    It may also be possible to achieve these incentives without resorting to legislation. But if legislative incentives are preferred, the Prime Minister is right to be concerned about any government-appointed body “supervising” the independent regulator. That would bring about the danger of political control by the backdoor. It is unnecessary and must be resisted.

    Furthermore, the Report contains a last-ditch alternative of compulsory statutory regulation, should the press be unwilling to implement his proposed scheme. Again, the Prime Minister is right to reject this unacceptable plan B, which Liberty would be unable to support. Freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy and must be protected. Such a move would send a terrible message to despots.

    The majority of Britain’s journalists do a fantastic job in holding the powerful to account and serving the public interest. The unethical and criminal acts of a select few cannot be allowed to erode centuries of press freedom.

    Ultimately the onus is now on the media themselves to address Leveson’s concerns, respond positively to his findings and implement the new robust model of self-regulation he proposes. This scheme, unlike unthinkable statutory regulation, has a little bit of something for everyone.

    Shami Chakrabarti is Director of Liberty

  3. Kellie said,

    I can’t see any difference in substance between that and her later remarks, can you? And though I haven’t read the report (!) it’s in line with what I understood to be her footnoted opinions published in the report. These were pointed out Friday’s Without Prejudice podcast, which I found very interesting and clear:

    http://charonqc.wordpress.com/2012/11/30/without-prejudice-lawcast-the-leveson-report-with-carl-gardner-and-david-allen-green/

  4. Jim Denham said,

    Kellie, with all due respect, I think there is a fairly fundamental contradiction between:

    (Liberty) “would be perfectly content with a simple statute offering greater certainty and protection to those publications who took the trouble to join and comply with an independent regulatory body” (in Mail on Sunday)

    and

    “Furthermore, the Report contains a last-ditch alternative of compulsory statutory regulation, should the press be unwilling to implement his proposed scheme. Again, the Prime Minister is right to reject this unacceptable plan B, which Liberty would be unable to support. Freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy and must be protected. Such a move would send a terrible message to despots” ( in Independent, Friday 30th Nov).

    • Kellie said,

      The apparent contradiction comes about because the two extracts are addressing two different aspects: (1) how to legally define the standard to be met by an independent regulator in order gain legal benefits for members, and (2) what to do if significant major publishers don’t join a voluntary system.

      (1) is addressed in paragraph 4 of the Friday Independent article (“Crucially” etc.) and paragraph 2 of the Sunday statement (“Whilst” etc.)

      (2) is addressed in paragraph 6 of the Friday Independent article (“Furthermore” etc.) and paragraph 4 of the Sunday statement (“Leveson does not” etc.)

  5. Kellie said,

    The relevant footnotes in the Leveson report can be found by searching in the PDF of Volume 4 for “Chakrabarti”.

    http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/hc1213/hc07/0780/0780.asp

  6. Tigger said,

    Hmmm
    Like you I was unsure of what the reaction to Leveson should be. The day after he reported I received an e-mail from 38degrees which summarised their position
    “Lord Justice Leveson believes a new law is needed to protect the independence of a new press watchdog. Independent experts, victims of phone hacking, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband all agree. But media barons like Rupert Murdoch oppose changing the law – and so far David Cameron seems to be taking their side.”
    So if I had any doubts about statutory press regulation then I would be a patsy for Murdoch and Cameron. I understand that position but it is clearly not that simple as the article highlights.
    One clear lesson from history is that the State has never hesitated, if threatened, to use any means at its disposal to preserve current social and economic relations. Further there were omissions in Leveson. First little comment on how the internet is to be regulated and surely that is something for a future inquiry. Second any clear analysis of the role of the police and relations between the press and police in what were clearly criminal acts in some cases. Third, and largely outside his remit, is who controls the media which is a far more pertinent question and one in which Jeremy Hunt’s role was whitewashed by Leveson.
    So we need to be extremely careful what we wish for. I am uncomfortable being on the same side as Cameron but compromising free speech is a dangerous road for the left much more than for the right.

  7. Rosie said,

    Many of us were overjoyed at seeing for real what had long been a fantasy. Murdoch and his minions were hauled to a hearing and asked, WTF have you been doing, scumbags? I have never bought the Guardian with so much relish as when reading about the latest developments. The pleasure was seeing the bigoted muck sellers actually being embarrassed for once. Having Sun journalists appear as the shameful little shits that they are was a real thrill.

    However, though it is pleasant to see those promoters of vicious ignorance being given a kicking – and some like Coulson and Brookes may end in jail – maybe that bit of blood-letting was enough. A lot of the problem was simply the police turning a blind eye to illegal practices. It’s illegal to hack phones, for instance.

    No legislation will stop papers producing and selling bigoted muck because there’s a market for it. When thinking of legislation and the press I’ve wanted libel laws lightened, not more legislation passed.

  8. Sarah AB said,

    I’m very confused too – particularly like Rosie’s comment though.

  9. Jimmy Glesga said,

    Sarah. I am not confused. They are just passing the time with their enquiries. It has been going on for decades. Let us have an enquiry. Happens all the time. Keep the vociferous minority happy that have an interest then move on to the next enquiry. Pay some public hard earned money to the moaners. It is what the British do best. That is Britain.

  10. Kellie said,

    Just found this by Hugh Tomlinson on Shami Chakrabarti and Leveson, where he both tries to undo the Mail’s muddling of her position and explains why he disagrees with her on the narrow area of difference between Chakrabarti and Leveson:

    http://inforrm.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/leveson-and-legality-implementation-of-the-report-would-not-be-illegal-hugh-tomlinson-qc/

  11. godlessliberal said,

    Shami is the only honest person left standing. If Cameron had proposed this you would all be screaming censorship. Particularly shocked at Jim Denham. #liberalnotstupid

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