Ethics & abuses

Journalistic ethics, how to define them and how to uphold them were central to the Inquiry, which was set up in response to a public perception of ethical failure. Much evidence was devoted to codes of practice and what they should say, and to the ethical training of journalists.

Uniquely in the history of press inquiries, evidence was heard in public from a number of victims of press abuses and breaches of ethical standards, including bereaved families, celebrities and politicians who gave accounts of intrusion and harassment. The Inquiry examined issues such as the impact of phone hacking, the misrepresentation of the McCann family, the coverage of minorities and the hounding of young women in the public eye such as Sienna Miller and Charlotte Church.

Journalists, editors and proprietors responded to such evidence and were examined on such matters as newsroom cultures, workplace bullying, competitive pressures and public-interest justifications.


The treatment of minorities in journalism figured both in oral evidence and in written submissions from a variety of groups, including ENGAGE (now MEND), the Federation of Muslim Organisations, Trans Media Watch, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. Journalists raising concerns included Peter Oborne, Richard Peppiatt and Katharine Quarmby.

The Report reviewed this evidence chiefly here: Report

The ability of existing laws and code provisions to protect people from religious, ethnic and other minorities from discrimination and the incitement of hatred in journalism was challenged, as was the commitment of the managements of news organisations to tackle the issue. So far as regulation was concerned, much argument surrounded the reluctance of the Press Complaints Commission to accept third-party complaints.

There was limited discussion of the presence of minorities in newsrooms, and the opportunities for minority candidates to gain training and employment.

See also: 'Group and third-party complaints'; 'Representation of women'.

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Objectivity and partisanship

The UK national press is famously partisan in its approach to public affairs: papers and editors take sides in big arguments, notably political arguments, and some papers are closely linked to political parties.

A number of witnesses and submissions (including the BBC, Ian Hargreaves and Angela Phillips) contrasted this with UK broadcasting, which is required to be politically impartial. There was also discussion of whether partisanship was consistent with accuracy; in other words, could journalists at a paper strongly supporting a political party be counted upon to report without distortion? Distortion was the subject of a submission by Thomas Gibbons. More generally, the National Council for the Training of Journalists and some of the academic witnesses discussed objectivity as part of journalism education. Several editors, ex-editors and proprietors, including James Harding, Richard Desmond, Rupert Murdoch, Andrew Neil, Paul Dacre and Lord Rothermere, shed light in their evidence on the nature of partiality in the press.

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Phone hacking

From the 1990s, newspapers illegally hacked the voicemails of celebrities, politicians, police officers, the royal household, rival journalists, ordinary people in the news such as bereaved families and the relatives, friends and associates of target individuals.

In 2006, a journalist, Clive Goodman, and a private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, both working for the News of the World, were caught hacking, and though the paper said it was just 'one rogue reporter' who was to blame, in 2009 The Guardian showed the practice went wider. There followed civil court actions, denials and accusations of cover-up involving News International (owners of the paper), the police and politicians.

In July 2011, The Guardian revealed that the phone of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler had been hacked and the Leveson Inquiry was established. By then, new criminal proceedings were under way and the matter was sub judice, so the Inquiry dealt with the subject mainly in general terms, including the roles of the police and politicians.

Since the Inquiry, it has been confirmed that journalists for the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the People also hacked phones. Thousands were targeted and nine journalists were convicted of hacking, including former News of the World editor Andy Coulson.

Many submissions and witnesses addressed phone hacking. The Inquiry heard evidence from Guardian journalist Nick Davies as well as from relevant police officers, notably Philip Williams and John Yates, and from victims including Bob and Sally Dowler, Charlotte Church, Lord Prescott and Sienna Miller. Andy Coulson, Ian Edmondson and Neville Thurlbeck, all subsequently convicted of hacking, also gave evidence.

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Data theft & data protection

This was a leading theme of the Inquiry, the subject of Part H of the Report and of 18 Recommendations.

The Operation Motorman affair, though not investigated in detail in Part 1 of the Inquiry (because criminality was a matter for Part 2), left no doubt that the protections in place for the private data of citizens were inadequate. Private investigators employed by almost all the national press had plundered personal data on an industrial scale, and the investigation of this by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) prompted two reports, What Price Privacy? and What Price Privacy Now?. The Inquiry looked closely at the consequences of those reports.

Much of the relevant evidence was supplied by the ICO and by its officers, past and present, most notably the Commissioner of the time, Christopher Graham, and his predecessor, Richard Thomas. Representatives of the PCC, notably Stephen Abell, were questioned about their responses to the two reports. Newspaper executives such as Peter Wright and Rebekah Brooks also supplied evidence.

Focusing on necessary reforms, the Inquiry proceedings highlighted questions of how far journalists should enjoy special privileges under data protection legislation, what powers of prosecution the ICO should have, what guidance the press industry needed, and the quality of relevant governance in the industry.

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The public interest

Both the law and the regulatory codes recognise that in some cases journalists may use the defence that they acted in the public interest, meaning in brief that, though they may have broken a law or breached a code, their actions were justified because they did more good for the public than they did harm.

Through the evidence of journalists (for example, Alan Rusbridger and John Witherow), regulators (Ofcom, the BBC), academics (including Professor Gavin Phillipson and in the hearing of 16 July 2012) and lawyers (Hugh Tomlinson, Keir Starmer), the Inquiry investigated how the public interest should be defined, referring to the ethical codes of the BBC, Ofcom and the PCC as well as to guidelines drawn up while the Inquiry sat by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

Also examined was the question of who should decide when and how the public interest was relevant. This led to the question of the independence of regulation: if a regulator was insufficiently independent of the press, would it too often give journalists the benefit of the doubt, even where citizens suffered harm?

The Report addressed the public interest at length in Part B, notably in Chapter 3. The legal aspects were analysed in Appendix 4. The Inquiry made three Recommendations relating to the public interest.

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The role of a code of practice in news publishing and who should have responsibility for it were matters examined very closely by the Inquiry. They were central to the Inquiry's mission because upholding a code was seen as the principal task of a regulator.

The Report looked closely at the function of professional codes generally (see Part B, Chapter 4, Section 4), the evolution of the Editors' Code of Practice that was operated by the Press Complaints Commission (see Part D, Chapters 1 and 2), the codes that applied in broadcasting (see Part K), significant breaches of the code (see Part F), monitoring the code (see Part J, Chapter 4, Section 6.22-6.27), relevant proposals for the future (see Part K, Chapter 3, Section 4 and Chapter 4, Section 8), and Recommendations (see Part K, Chapter 7, Section 4.18-4.24).

Among those whose evidence included discussion of codes were the PCC, Lord Black, Baroness O'Neill, Paul Dacre, Alan Rusbridger, Dr Martin Moore and Professor Chris Frost.

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The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was established as a self-regulator by the newspaper industry in 1990 in response to the findings of the first Calcutt Report (see here), which called for more accountability and improved complaints handling. When its early performance was assessed by Sir David Calcutt in 1993, he declared it a failure, but his findings were shelved by the government of the time.

At the time the Leveson Inquiry was established, the view was widely shared that the PCC was ineffective in upholding journalistic standards and had failed, and the Inquiry's Terms of Reference explicitly called for Recommendations for a new system.

The Inquiry reviewed in considerable detail the PCC's history, particularly in the 21st century, up to and including its limited efforts to respond to phone hacking. It is likely that the majority of witnesses addressed the subject. Former directors and officials and responsible industry figures were questioned in detail about its structure, operations and record, and about how far it had been independent of the news industry. Editors and journalists gave evidence about their views of and relationships with the PCC. Politicians were asked their opinions on its effectiveness.

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McCann case

The disappearance of three-year-old Madeleine McCann in Portugal in 2007 prompted intense media coverage over nearly a year, and some dozen newspapers eventually admitted and paid damages for hundreds of libels either against the parents, Gerry and Kate McCann, or against others including, notably, a British citizen living in Portugal, Robert Murat.

The Inquiry heard from the McCanns about their experience and also questioned editors including Peter Hill, Paul Dacre, Colin Myler, Dawn Neesom and Richard Wallace, as well as reporters such as David Pilditch. It examined the competitive pressures on journalists and editors to produce stories where public demand for information is high, and it looked at the question of newsroom fact-checking.

Close attention was also paid to the absence of public engagement in the affair by the Press Complaints Commission, and Tim Toulmin and Christopher Meyer gave evidence on this.

The Report reviewed the case here.

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The Inquiry received a great deal of evidence on this, with witnesses such as Sienna Miller, Steve Coogan, HJK, Patricia Bernal, Baroness Hollins and Jan Woolf relating experiences of over-persistent inquiries at their homes, and of pestering and pursuit in the street. The subject was reviewed in the Report in Part F, Chapter 5, and in Chapter 6 at Section 9.

Some forms of harassment were prohibited under Clause 4 of the Editors' Code used by the PCC. The Press Complaints Commission also operated a 'desist notice' system, advising members to back off where there had been complaints. The effectiveness of these was discussed in evidence by Stephen Abell and Lord Black and addressed in the Report (see Part D, Chapter 2, Section 6). Representatives of the photography trade such as Matthew Sprake and Darren Lyons described their approaches, as did picture editors such as Michael Lidbury and Mark Moylan.

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Representation of women

The Inquiry received numerous submissions and heard evidence from a number of witnesses arguing that parts of the press tended to report about and present women in a way that was discriminatory, and some editors were questioned on the point.

The challenges came from groups including OBJECT, End Violence Against Women (EVAW), Eaves Housing, and Equality Now. Anna van Heeswijk of OBJECT gave evidence on the morning of 24 January 2012.

Among editors or ex-editors to comment were Dominic Mohan of The Sun and Colin Myler, formerly of the News of the World and the Sunday Mirror. The then-routine appearance of topless women on Page 3 of The Sun was a particular focus of debate.

Some discussion related to difficulties encountered in raising complaints about sexist reporting, given the prevailing limits on representative group complaints. Stephen Abell of the Press Complaints Commission gave evidence on this point. Lord Black was questioned on the prospects for representative group complaints under the Hunt/Black plan.

The Leveson Report discussed these matters here. The Report concluded that these were matters for consideration by any new regulator and suggested that any new regulatory code should 'reflect the spirit of equalities legislation'.

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Future of journalism
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Background & history
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Subsequent developments
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Ethics & abuses
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