The Leveson Inquiry

The Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice, and ethics of the press in the United Kingdom has just issued its report. The inquiry was occasioned by the phone-hacking scandal that engulfed the UK tabloid press (especially Rupert Murdoch's titles) in 2011.

David Cameron's lukewarm reception of the report and, crucially, his reluctance to accept its recommendations in full because they include statutory, Parliamentary legislative, underpinning for the proposed voluntary but financially incentivized press self-regulatory body, has led to accusation of betrayal from the victims of the 2011 phone-hacking. And indeed from victims of press hysteria, malignancy, and carelessness towards the lives of those caught up, however tangentially, in scandals over the last decade or so.

It has always seemed to me, growing up in and now staying connected with the UK, that the press had the power to ruin one's life should one be unlucky enough to be caught up in something they cared about. The neighbours of the late Amy Winehouse, who complained to the police that the media harassing her were also harassing them and defecating in their front yards, seemed to exemplify this potential predicament: the police response was "nothing we can do". Thanks to Leveson, we now have some idea of the umbilical links between press and police that facilitated this attitude—but the fact remains that beyond those links there was not much illegal about press harassment of artists, celebrities, and, indeed, criminals and hypocrites—nor was there any real protection available for "civilians" (a press term) caught up in the midst.

With these attitudes in the back of my mind, I spent the Leveson inquiry leaning away from a firm commitment to a wholly free media towards a desire for protection for the public, even those who happened to be artists with genius like Amy Winehouse, or those accused but not yet convicted (or in some cases not yet exculpated) of horrible crimes. These attitudes went beyond, I think, my simple reflex left-wing desire to see the Murdoch press humbled.

But what I am really interested in here is what happened during the inquiry. It was, to my mind, a first. A communicative first. Instead of the hysteria and inevitable hurry of the media, and instead of the increasingly pantomime banter of the House of Commons, we had a sober judge and some well-trained lawyers (mostly from elite fee-paying schools, but that is a problem for another discussion) in an unfussy room talking very slowly through the issues. Televised, online, and transcripts available.

The most important aspect of this new communication reality was the way that the inquiry was set up to deal with those it interviewed / those who testified (and they did so under oath). The questioning came from an advocate tasked with difficult questions, and the judge intervened from a neutral perspective. And the pace was slow. Very slow. The same latitude to expand and explain was given to the most senior and junior of witnesses—and to the most and the least famous. The same calm commitment to the pursuit of truth pervaded every session. No rush to finish. No soundbites necessary. Slogans seemed out of place. Sessions could be extended to after lunch. Witnesses could be recalled.

As you may be able to tell—the process made a real impression on me. And the idealistic language I use to describe the Levenson process is a reflection of a connection that I made at the time—and that I remain faithful to today. I was always a fan of Jurgen Habermas' philosophy of communicative action—it always seemed like a beautifully optimistic utopia of good conversations, shared ideas, and gradual progress towards agreement. However, I was always too faithful a critical theorist, too concerned with the fragile and idealist nature of Habermas' epistemological claims and assumptions, and too worried about the corrupting teleology of progress to really get on board. I always hung back.

But then Leveson and his inquiry made me feel like Habermas' dream—his analysis of an ideal speech situation—could come true. And work. If Hugh Grant, the editor of Mail Online (admit it, you know that website, #1 or #2 in the US, we've all sunk to its level at least once?), the serving Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition could all be brought into a communicative process that gave its audience (and who knows, perhaps its participants?) real information about facts, intentions, and agency—then why couldn't politics always be understood and reported like this?

The critical factor, perhaps, was time. It took time, and space in the scheduling, and the legal power to compel witnesses to attend, to ensure that:

1. Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.

2a. Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever.

2b. Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse.

2c. Everyone is allowed to express his attitudes, desires, and needs.

3. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his rights as laid down in (1) and (2).

Habermas quoting R. Alexy in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action (1990) p.89.

Access to political power (whether via legislative connections, wealth, or fame) did not determine access to the Leveson process. Witnesses were not stopped from making whatever assertions they desired. Time was provided to allow this to happen.

What impact did this approximation of an ideal speech situation have on a country without C-Span, where the Parliamentary channel can only cover the political machinations and quarrels of the Houses of Parliament and their committees? Not much. Perhaps only academics obsessed with language sitting in offices churning their way through hundreds of pages of mediaeval text (me!) were motivated to tune in to the live stream of the proceedings. Then again, when I flew through a UK airport, every TV was tuned to Leveson because Hugh Grant was performing / asserting / desiring. He certainly looked good. In his role. And I like to think that people noticed how long he was able to talk, how what he said was not immediately manipulated, and how the spectacle gave them the time to think. The critical factor was the pace. Speed kills. Sadly, I have just joined Twitter. And David Cameron’s latest comment on Leveson is “the clock is ticking”…

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