Leveson as a prototype

Some say the Leveson inquiry is likely to go on for too long. I could not disagree more. I think it’s not going on long enough. 

After publicly shaming the press, it should turn its attention of other targets - drug companies, money sharks, health carers, financial services - indeed any sector where ethical standards are under siege.

It should become a model for a new kind of standing commission charged with restoring moral considerations to the heart of our society.  

Leveson ought to be seen not as a one-off but as a prototype.

The inquiry is proving remarkably effective in ways few anticipated. Almost by accident, it has rediscovered the punitive power of humiliation. This coming week - as it resumes after a Christmas break - it will apply that power to editors, ex-editors, publishers and executives.

Its strength lies in the process itself. By giving a platform to victims - such as the McCanns and Dowlers - it points an accusing finger at the culprits in a way which has seldom happened before. Yes, there have been tribunals in the past. But this is different. This one benefits from live streaming, twitter, rolling TV news and instant access to all its own archives. 

It is a high-tech version of the public stocks.

When you are shamed at Leveson, you are shamed for ever, and your ordeal is available in moving pictures to your family and friends, colleagues and neighbours. There is no hiding away inside your glass and concrete tower. You’re not anonymous. Everyone can see your face and hear what you did.

The result is that in two months, Leveson has achieved more than the Press Complaints Commission achieved in 20 years. 

Public shaming may be crude but it is effective and in its own way often as fair as the alternatives. First you call the victims and ask them to describe their experiences. Then you call the culprits and ask them to explain themselves. 

Before the inquiry adjourned we saw three Daily Express reporters cross-examined about the non-stories they kept filing from Portugal on the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Their articles were largely fact free, at best tittle-tattle, at worst deeply cruel. One of them found the guts to apologise. The others looked shamefaced, like kids parked on the naughty step. There was nothing much they could say except that the story had become an ‘obsession’ of their then editor, Peter Hill. 

I know Peter Hill. You could not meet a nicer person. He is warm and friendly, the possessor of a surreal sense of humour. I like him. In his personal life, he would feel only compassion for people whose child had vanished inexplicably. Yet, as an editor, he oversaw reams of copy which added terribly to the McCann’s distress, fuelling an entirely false picture that somehow they were themselves guilty.

Would he have done it if he’d known that there would be a day of reckoning - not just in the cloistered forums of the High Court and the PCC - but in front of TV cameras this coming week, put out live on the Leveson webpage, followed on twitter, revealing his looks of self-doubt and embarrassment, his ifs and buts, recorded for posterity.. 

When he appears before Leveson, he will be asked to explain why he pursued his McCann ‘obsession’. Was he aware of the pain? Did he care? Did he know some stories were cruel nonsense? Did he simply confuse ‘entertainment’ with real life? Did commerce trump humanity? Did he discuss it with his boss, Richard Desmond, who will also be called as a witness? 

The Express Group has already paid substantial damages and apologised on the front page, so he has little room for retreat. 

It will be a excruciating moment for him. Although now retired, he is a well-known Fleet Street figure, a former member of the PCC itself, which says everything about that body’s failings. 

After last week’s evidence, I wonder if he is sharing the shame felt by his three reporters. Would they have accommodated his demands if they too knew they would face a moment of televisual contrition. 

I think not.

The same will apply to other editors who oversaw serious editorial misjudgments relating not to just the McCanns but to other cases such as Christopher Jefferies, wrongly arrested in the Joanne Yeates murder inquiry. The daddy of them all, Kelvin MacKenzie, will have his moment to explain his admission that he would just ‘lob’ stories in without much checking.

They will all struggle. Failures will be laid bare. Those who try to make speeches will be told to confine themselves to answering the questions, as Piers Morgan was last week.

Just before the inquiry began, Paul Dacre, referring to PCC rulings, said: ‘I, and other editors, regard being obliged to publish an adjudication as a real act of shame.’

I take this with a pinch of salt. As a lowly ex-editor myself, one who has suffered censure, I saw it as professional risk in a risky business.You made so many margin calls that some had to go wrong. Every now and then, you crashed. Your peers only thoughts were ‘there but for the grace of God...’

Nobody ever shunned me because of a PCC adjudication. Neighbours didn’t flee or cross the road. People didn’t defriend me on facebook. My family did not look embarrassed to be seen out with me.  Why? Nobody really knew about it. If they did, they wouldn’t understand the big picture. The PCC hardly registered, except in a tiny media circle.

So it was not much of a deterrent. 

But what if I’d feared being thoroughly cross-examined on TV? What if I’d been faced with claims that I had caused terrible misery.? What if my friends had seen it and felt disgusted?

What if a small voice, a child perhaps, had later asked me: ‘Why did you make Mrs McCann cry?’

Would I have modified my behaviour?

You bet I would.

It’s happening now. The prospect of appearing before Leveson is already acting as a restraint on tabloid newspapers. His presence is parked like a ghostly spectre behind every editor. 

And, of course, the buck extends beyond the editors, to the Murdochs, Desmond, Harmsworth and others who hold ultimate responsibility. Whatever your wealth and power, it gets very lonely sitting in a witness box and being cross-examined by someone as forensic as Robert Jay, QC, counsel for the inquiry. 

I do not know if this was Lord Justice Leveson’s cunning plan. To begin with, we all thought the inquiry would be about his conclusions. But now we see that it is the process itself which exerts real power. Apart from the exposure, it has encouraged self-scrutiny. There is not a newspaper office in which it has not been discussed. In universities it is being used as a teaching aid on journalism courses.

Students want to know where to draw the line. Every journalist does. At what point do you tell your boss to stuff it when asked to write another nonsense piece about Maddie McCann?

My view is that this kind of inquiry could work just as well in other ethically-challenged sectors. 

What about the loans being pushed on daytime TV, often backed by the big banks? Summon the banks’ chairman!

What about the deterioration in NHS care?

What about mis-selling of financial products?

What if a US version had questioned the ethics of those pushing sub-prime home loans back in, say, 2005? We might well have been saved from financial crisis. 

Leveson still has his critics, in predictable corners. But in another context, public shaming would probably be popular with Daily Mail readers. The tabloids like naming and shaming as long as they are not the targets. It is what they do. It is part of our culture - from the publishing of court reports, to newspaper exposes and TV investigations. They all trade in the currency of humiliation.

Leveson demonstrates how it can be used even more effectively. 

Lord Justice Leveson, in his understated way, is showing us a way forward to building a fairer, more ethical society. We should learn from him. We should view his inquiry as a prototype for something permanent. Using it as a model we could create a body whose task is to hold other sectors to account just as the press is now being held to account.