Leveson and the left: confusion and anger

What next for journalists after the Leveson report? This was the question being debated last Thursday evening by SohoSkeptics when they hosted a discussion on the Leveson report into media ethics. The panel featured distinguished left wing writers and journalists. It was hosted by Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman magazine, and also included the Observer’s Nick Cohen and the Guardian’s Suzanne Moore on the anti-Leveson side. The pro-Leveson side was made up of Dr Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmith’s University and Dr Evan Harris, former Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford and prominent member of the Hacked Off campaign.

My own view on the Leveson report, one which is popular among the left leaning people I know, is that Leveson should be used as a stick to beat the right wing newspapers with - especially those owned by Murdoch. At the same time we must protect Private Eye’s freedom to expose the dirty secrets of prominent members of the government. What I found most interesting about Thursday night’s debate was the reaction of the audience to the arguments being made and what that told me about the left’s reaction to Leveson in general.

A left wing panel usually means a left wing audience, especially at a meeting of a skeptics group. At one point a member of the panel asked if there were any Conservatives in the audience and one solitary man raised his voice from the gallery.

As I listened to the debate and the audience’s reaction it became apparent that this group of lefties had different ideas to mine. The first indication of this came from the big cheer that Moore received despite making thoughtless comments about transgender people in a recent Guardian article. Complaints were made about this on Twitter and she refused to apologise. The situation exploded when Julie Burchill at the Observer wrote a defence of Moore which contained language widely dubbed as hate speech. With this controversy on my mind and this being a left wing audience I had expected booing and heckling when Moore appeared, so cheers and applause came as something of a surprise.

Clearly this audience’s supported what Moore later described as ‘complete freedom of expression’, which she painted as the enemy of Leveson. Personally I want to emphasise the responsibilities associated with the right to freedom of speech. Namely not writing hate speech.

Some have sought to frame the debate around the Leveson inquiry into one of free speech against totalitarian press restriction and that was definitely on the audience’s mind. At one point I overheard one member of a group sitting behind me say 'it is a debate between freedom and not freedom', and although ineloquent this summed up the concerns of many present.

During the intermission I listened to what people around me were saying and aside from the general support for press freedom I also detected a distinct anti-regulation, support for small business sentiment. There was a distinct feeling that Leveson would make life more difficult for smaller news organisations and start-ups, perhaps playing into the hands of the established news providers and Murdoch.

I had started very much in favour of press regulation, mainly as a means to diminish the power of the right-wing press. By the end I felt very differently after hearing the passionate arguments from the panel, especially from Cohen.

I did not find myself completely agreeing with the anti-Leveson side. I felt that Cohen was naive in suggesting that print media would vanish completely. It is likely that the large newspapers will become major brands in the online news market. Any flaws in the ethics or practices of print journalists will be carried over as the newspapers move increasingly online and online news start-ups will look to the large players to see what standard of ethics is acceptable.

I also felt that Moore was wrong to defend unrestricted freedom of expression, especially when she comes from a position of cisgendered privilege. I agree that press freedom is important but she has a responsibility as a figure with a national platform. She made good points about the lack of working class journalists but it is wrong to use her social class as an excuse to defend attacks on other disadvantaged groups. It was also wrong of her to imply that she was the victim of those opposed to free speech. This is the same defence used by Peter Hitchens and Frankie Boyle when they say something hateful. They use freedom of speech to attack the idea of political correctness but political correctness is part of the mechanism which protects the weak from the strong in society. Moore has responsibilities which comes from having a position of privilege and having a position of importance at a national newspaper. It is wrong for straight, white, able-bodied men to use free speech as an excuse for unexamined privilege and it is wrong for Moore to use it as well.

I left the Soho Skeptics meeting feeling that my knowledge had expanded but that I had more questions than answers. This reflected what I heard from the audience and what the left feels in general. There was outrage at what the right leaning tabloids had done, about the lives they had ruined, the laws they had broken and the shame they had brought on journalists. There was no consensus on how to progress. State regulation and statuary underpinning appeared to be an unpopular course of action but it was naïve to assume that if nothing was done the problems would resolve themselves. Clearly the culture of tabloid papers needs to be addressed, as self-regulation by newspapers has not worked. However, no method was clear to achieve this without threatening the essential freedoms on which good journalism relies.

I left unable to reach any important conclusions, I only had more questions. Where do we go from here? How do we change the tide in our favour? For now the main comforting fact about the Leveson debate and the audience’s reaction was that at least we are all asking the right questions.