Lawyer Aamer Anwar's opening address during a panel debate, hosted by The Drum on 28 June 2012, about the impact of the Leveson inquiry.
Source: The Drum
If anybody had told me when the trial of Tommy Sheridan ended in December 2010 that the News of the World would be no more the following year I would have thought them insane. But of course, if anybody had said in December 2010 that a year-and-a-half later I would be writing a column for the Sun on Sunday, I would also have thought them insane as well. It's funny how the dark forces work.
In the period of several months during and following the trial, I sat with a dossier of evidence that got bigger and bigger which sat in a safe in our office. That was a dossier of evidence against the News of the World and other newspapers. In July last year, along with Tom Watson MP, I arranged a press conference around this dossier, which contained serious allegations of criminality, perjury, phone hacking, breaches of data and corruption of the police.
At the end of that press conference, a BBC reporter moved forward, just as we were about to leave to hand our dossier to Strathclyde Police, and whispered that the News of the World had been shut down. I thought he was taking the piss. The world changed on that day and the whole world has drastically changed since July last year. Leveson has arrived. Politicians have been ridiculed for ingratiating themselves with the Murdochs.
We've found out about Andy Coulson and the Rebekah Brooks parties, Christmas dos, becoming god parents, organising horse riding; the only thing missing from this whole collection of events was a good old fashioned sex or swinging story that would normally appear in the tabloid press. In regards to these politicians who seems to line up one-after-the-other at the Leveson Inquiry to say how disgusted they were with the industrial scale criminality at News International its funny that prior to Leveson and prior to the arrests taking place, not one of them seemed to say so. They only chose to pluck up the courage once the criminality was exposed and it was largely due to the evidence of The Guardian, Tom Watson and a lawyer called Mark Lewis.
I for one took no pleasure in several hundred staff, who had done absolutely no wrong, being sacked up-and-down this country by News of the World and News International. And for those that believe that when we talk about this in the context of Independence and Devo Max, that somehow Scottish media was immune from criminal practices or criminality and that there is no need for Leveson to impact on Scotland, whether it be part of the UK or independent, I would say that they are absolutely and utterly wrong.
Operation Rubicon, was launched following the handing over of a dossier and in days it went from four officers to 24 to 50, and after a year of inquiries the operation is still not over. There are many people who are worried within the industry, not just in News International, but other newspapers, who I will not name as enquiries are still ongoing, and of course, Andy Coulson is still entitled to the presumption of innocence that his victims were not entitled to. It’s inevitable that reform has to take place here whether there is independence in Scotland or as part of the UK.
However I don’t believe that a Government, with a few honourable exceptions, have all been caught with their pants down should impose almost total statutory regulation. I don’t trust them to do that. It would mean political interference.
It would stifle free speech and I don’t think that we would get The Guardian type of journalists that work in the public interest. Freedom of expression is vital to a democracy and its best manifested by a media when it actually exposes the powerful - and organisations like News International and the Government to scrutiny.
But it’s also important for the media to understand that - while press freedom is crucial for a strong democracy - I don’t think that the press and the media in this country has a right to make money through criminality, or unethical behaviour.
For the 22 years of the history of the PCC, it has been a joke. The PCC is a toothless watchdog that has had no powers to enforce its code or investigate. It has failed abysmally to investigate, it’s been self-serving for the media barons and it’s become more akin to a gentleman’s club rather than a regulator with teeth.
And unlike Ofcom, and I think this is crucial when you talk about the excesses of media, it refused complaints from third parties giving the newspapers, including the Daily Record in Scotland in 2001, the Daily Mail, The Sun, the News of the World, among others, license in pedaling bigotry. Vulnerable groups, like asylum seekers, people who are detained without trial or the disabled genuinely struggle to get redress as a result.
What we genuinely need is a real independent body with press freedom and journalistic standards at its heart.
It has to have teeth and it has to be underpinned by a statute to mediate with the public. It needs to have a new legal framework to deal with complaints and deal with its codes and it has to be able to hand out penalties. I’m not talking about £200, but penalties that do mean something and it has to have powers to carry out investigations. We should take on the recommendations of Leveson and in Scotland we need to do that as well.
But remember, what was needed in the case of mobile phone hacking was the Metropolitan Police to stop being in the pockets of papers, to stop being corrupted by them, and to simply get on with doing its job.
We had perfectly good criminal laws which were unenforced by policemen. It should have stopped the excesses at the time. There are laws that criminalise mobile phone hacking, there are laws against the bribery of policemen. No matter which way Andrew Coulson may have chosen to address it, the fact is that bribery or the offering of any payments to police officers and public figures is illegal. There are laws against harassment and trespass etc. If you look across the water to the US there hacking stopped dead after a journalist who hacked the phone of a company had to pay out a $10m action and the journalist went to jail.
There needs to be a bigger debate on the issues of asylum seekers. I find it amazing that over the years we have seen the brutal battering that asylum seekers, some of the most vulnerable people in society, having to see rubbish printed about them, yet there is no redress for third parties with the PCC. There is no redress for those individuals or those organisations to be able to take them on. There is demonising of a prime suspect, there is use of paparazzi pictures which always spark debates. Fines should be proportionate to the paper’s circulation or to the advertising rates.
If it was merely a complaints body, without protecting the rights of the freedom of the press, or something drawn up by editors, then it is going to go wrong. What astounded me during the Sheridan trial, looking through the Code of Practice and asking questions of editors I asked ‘did you ever sack anyone for breaching the ethics of the code?’ No-one seemed to remember a single time that someone had happened.
My final point is that the onus should not be put on the journalists but on the editors and media barons who own the industry. What should be implemented is a conscience clause for journalists to be able to say ‘no I’m not going to be able to do this. I’m not going to break the law. And I am going to blow the whistle on this’. That is a fundamental issue.
Aamer Anwar's law firm is Aamer Anwar & Co