It's about more than just phone hacking ... unfortunately

Bookmark and Share Ideas & Liberty, Freedom of Speech and Deregulation Unit | Chris Berg
The Drum 4th December, 2012

If you want to know what actually happened in the British phone hacking scandal, you won't find it in the Leveson inquiry report released last Thursday.

The report comprises almost 2,000 pages; it's spread across four volumes and has 59 separate chapters. It has a lot of stuff about media history and ethics and philosophy; a lot of hand-wringing about press "culture" and personal friendships between Fleet Street and Westminster.

But not a lot about who committed what crime and when.

For instance, the fact that Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson (both ex-News of the World editors) are in court this week facing charges of corrupt payments to public officials does not inform the report.

Nor the fact that at least three public officials have been arrested for misconduct in a public office - that is, corruption.

Lord Justice Leveson is recommending statutory regulation of the press before his inquiry has gotten to the bottom of the phone hacking scandal.

Even by the woolly standards of judge-led policy advocacy, this is pretty stark. Especially considering his proposals would be a reversal of the four-century-old victory of free press over state power.

The Leveson inquiry's terms of reference are split in two. Part 1 looks at the "culture, practices, and ethics of the press". Part 2 investigates the specific allegations of unlawful conduct and corrupt payments between press and police.

This is the real issue, as I argued in July last year. Criminal acts are a bad thing and should be punished. But criminal acts with the assistance of police are much, much more disconcerting. Thursday's report is Part 1. Part 2 hasn't even started yet.

Operation Elveden - the Metropolitan Police Department's investigation into corruption in the police force - is ongoing. Leveson writes that he doesn't want to step on its toes. Repeatedly throughout the report, witnesses suggest serious things. For instance, unnamed senior officers are "rumoured to be corrupt", but the story ends there, "for fear of undermining what could be an ongoing investigation".

Still, the first report reveals a litany of errors, misjudgements and bureaucratic backside-covering that allowed the scandal to build before it exploded in 2011.

Between 2001 and 2003, the Devon and Cornwall Police discovered a ring of retired and serving police officers selling information from police databases to private investigators. The investigators were then selling that information to various clients, some of whom were journalists.

Such privacy breaches are not unusual. Over the last decade, more than 200 Metropolitan police officers and civilian administrators have been disciplined for wrongfully accessing the Police National Database. The current commissioner described this to the Leveson inquiry as a "chronic problem".

But when the Devon and Cornwall Police cases went to court, the judges let the accused go with conditional discharges. They didn't even get fined.

When the story surfaced again in 2006 (this time the Royal family was claiming its private phone messages were being listened to) memory of the pathetic sentences given to the earlier cases meant the London police were reluctant to aggressively push their investigations. It just wasn't worth the effort. That, and Britain was at the height of the anti-terrorism campaign. In the wake of the London bombings, chasing privacy prosecutions was less a priority than hunting violent Islamists.

Still, one reporter - News of the World's "one rogue reporter" - was prosecuted. As part of its investigations, the police found a huge list of potential victims, but it failed to notify them.

Three years later, the Guardian and the New York Times published allegations of widespread phone hacking. This time, the police stonewalled. The issue had already been dealt with. To admit that there was more to the case was to admit that they were wrong to draw a line under the rogue reporter in 2006.

The Milly Dowler story erupted in July 2011. The police had been in possession of seized documents with her name - and Hugh Grant's name - since the first investigations in 2003.

I've dwelled on this timeline because it is the closest the Leveson report gets to an exploration of the specific failures that led to the phone hacking scandal.

It's all well and good to wax lyrical about ethics and press culture. But if we want to link problem to solution - a basic requirement in the development of good public policy - we have to know what actually caused the events we're concerned about.

And too much of the Leveson report is divorced from the phone hacking itself. You can understand why David Cameron offered Leveson such a wide brief - he was embarrassed about his relationship to the now disgraced Andy Coulson. But the distance between scandal detail and regulatory proposals undermines the point of the whole inquiry.

To be fair, Leveson's effort is far better than Australia's Finkelstein inquiry. Here, Justice Ray Finkelstein wasn't even given a scandal to work with - he had to construct a justification for press regulation out of thin air. Where Britain had the Milly Dowler case, Australia had the vibe of the thing.

So it is not insignificant that the Finkelstein and Leveson recommendations were so similar: statutory regulation of the press disguised as "self-regulation". In the UK this is apparently the solution to widespread criminality. In Australia it is apparently a solution to ... well, what exactly? The strongest case Finkelstein could come up with was that newspapers gave an unbalanced presentation of climate science.

But there's a vocal group of people who want a new regulator backed by government, so that's what gets recommended. Is there anybody who didn't think Leveson or Finkelstein would call for new regulation? The only suspense has been for the details.

Last week David Cameron rejected those details - he would not cross the Rubicon into press regulation. Hopefully, Julia Gillard and Stephen Conroy will do the same.

This article first appeared on The Drum on 4/12/12 at http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/4406972.html