John Steel

Leveson: Solution or symptom? Class, crisis and the degradation of civil life[1]

This paper argues the Leveson process is one which has been flawed since its inception. Understandable though they are, the calls for tighter regulation of the press following the News of the World's despicable treatment of the Dowler and McCann families and many others, will undoubtedly fail to address deeper systemic and structural issues which have contributed to the crisis not only in journalism but in public life itself. Rehabilitating the press is not only currently unfeasible, as numerous inquiries and royal commissions have demonstrated, but attempts to force the popular press to behave in ways which run counter to their raison d'être miss the point about the broader democratic and civic culture which exists in Britain today.

Keywords: democratic deficit, media reform, political legitimacy, civic disengagement


After more than twelve months of speculation and some anxiety amongst media commentators and journalists about what exactly Lord Justice Brian Leveson would propose in his report into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, on 29 November 2012 the waiting was over and he delivered his scathing assessment of ‘a culture (or, perhaps more accurately, a sub-culture) within some parts of some titles’ within the press (Leveson 2012b: 9). In addition to assessing the culture, practice and ethics of the press, Leveson was also charged with devising a new model of regulation which would address the failings of the press, failings which had not been addressed in some seven previous inquiries into the press in Britain. [2] In the build-up to the report’s publication the pressure from various interested parties was exerted on Leveson and, in particular, on Prime Minister David Cameron to ‘do the right thing’. The public debate has been characterised broadly as a contest between journalistic responsibility and accountability on the one hand and ‘freedom of the press’ on the other. The public face of this contest featured high profile members of the campaign group Hacked Off (2012) arguing that time had finally run out for the press and some form of statutory underpinning behind press reform was required. On the other side of the debate we saw the self-aggrandising ‘Free Speech Network’ which is made up of a collection of organisations and individuals ‘who share concerns over protecting freedom of expression’ (Free Speech Network 2012). As expected, the report is highly critical of certain sections of the popular press in their treatment of ordinary members of the public, public figures and celebrities who, for no fault of their own, became targets of press intrusion and victims of illegal and unethical practices.

In addition to the analysis and recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson, the process itself has also provided a useful insight into the culture of a particular type of tabloid journalism. The forensic examination of witnesses and witness testimony has shone a light on the privileged ‘insider’ culture that has empowered journalism and fuelled its mythology as the Fourth Estate. It has allowed members of the public an opportunity to see the façade of journalism as the ‘Fourth Estate’ for what it really is. Indeed, through the process itself it seemed that journalism’s seedy underbelly was being called to account in its complicit dealings with the powerful. The daily spectacle of the hearings brought about a sense that we were finally witnessing an exposé of journalism that would go a long way in the process of reforming it. It seemed that this was the moment when journalism would finally be forced to meet its democratic and civic obligations.

The hearings, and particularly the evidence provided by victims of press intrusion, seemed to demonstrate that finally journalism would now get its comeuppance and there would be more to follow once the various police investigations had concluded. ‘Who is watching the watchers?’ is of course an oft-used and even clichéd question, yet it is one I regularly put to my students. The watchers were being watched and finally being called to account, or so it seemed. Yet it is the mythology of journalism as the Fourth Estate that has arguably contributed to this particular crisis in journalism. The News of the World’s celebratory account of its own contribution to watchdog journalism in its final edition betrays the narrative which encourages rule-bending for the greater public good. The obvious point, of course, is often journalism, barring a few notable exceptions, seems incapable of scrutinising itself to any significant degree.

Though the issue of some form of statutory underpinning has been one of the central features of the debate about Leveson, this paper will not rehearse these arguments; nor will I look to make a case for either side of the debate. I am, however, concerned with the Leveson process and, in particular, how the Leveson Inquiry itself and lobbyists on both sides of the debate have highlighted a deep-seated crisis which exists in British civic culture. However powerful Leveson’s arguments might be for a statutory underpinning to an independent regulator and however potent the counter arguments are, this paper argues that ultimately the Leveson process has missed the point, both in terms of its remit and, unsurprisingly, in its recommendations. As such I put forward three points for consideration.

Firstly, I suggest that the Leveson process should be seen as indicative of a well-established, historically salient and elite-driven contempt for the working class and working class identity. Secondly, that recent controversies surrounding journalism, one of which of course prompted Leveson, highlight an existential crisis at the heart of journalism’s quest for a meaningful identity in the face of rapid social and technological change. Thirdly, I argue that the Leveson process is reflective of a deeper civic malaise which is manifested in a largely sceptical and depoliticised civic culture in which the failings of politicians, journalists and the police are largely divorced from the wider social and cultural context. I suggest that the more fundamental issue of de-politicisation, lack of legitimacy and an entrenched lack of faith in civic life have contributed significantly to a form of anti-civic scepticism, the responsibility of which arguably lay in the systemic debasement of democratic culture.

As such, Leveson should not be seen as a solution to the ‘problem’ of the press, more a symptom of a crisis of civic legitimacy. In making these arguments I will first highlight the historical nature of Leveson and the essentially class-bound and elite-driven dynamic therein. From there I will briefly highlight the crisis of journalism which arguably has its roots in a much deeper structural and cultural transformations. Finally, I will go on to highlight the work of Hay (2007) and Furedi (2005) and draw on key arguments which go some way in providing the theoretical basis for my overall thesis.

Historicising Leveson

Before the first session of Leveson it seemed as though the writing was on the wall for certain sections of the tabloid press. Once the proceedings were underway the list of celebrity victims of alleged hacking added to the weight of public condemnation heaped on News International’s management team and journalists. One after another painted vivid pictures of ‘grubby journalists’ invading their privacy for their unscrupulous bosses. What was striking about much of this testimony was the implicit way in which the tabloids’ readership was framed. It seemed that it was not only the tabloids, and particularly the Murdoch-owned tabloids, that lacked any moral worth, but also its readership by association.

Though the readership of the newspapers was only obliquely discussed (primarily in terms of discussions about the public interest and what ‘interests the public’), there was an unspoken sense of collective disdain for those who buy and consume this material; a subtextual assertion that the tabloids and by association their readership are somehow morally bankrupt. Tabloid culture was not only morally corrupt and potentially criminal, by implication, the readership of the likes of the Sun were also given to such moral failings as they sustain this culture. Such contempt for a particular readership is nothing new. Elite-driven moral outrage at the activities of the press has been ever present. Paternalistic public moralists and philosophers of the nineteenth century consistently ridiculed sections of the working class press and sought to develop a counter print culture which would contribute to the betterment rather than debasement of the people.

As Mark Hampton (2004) has suggested, the press during the first part of the nineteenth century adopted what might be termed an ‘educational ideal’ in which certain elements of the press sought to imbue specific moral and political values and virtues in their reading public. Such paternalism was often directed towards the so-called ‘lower orders’ who needed to be ‘educated’ so that they would learn to respect ‘proper virtues and positions’ (Steel 2009).

The ‘quality press’ has also historically had a hand in driving this paternalistic dynamic. As Patrick Collier (2006) has demonstrated in his book Modernism on Fleet St., the early years of the 20th century witnessed an elite-driven disdain for certain sections of the press which orientated itself towards the masses. The fundamental problem was the mass public and their general lack of ability to wean themselves off the ‘gutter press’. It seems it has always been the case that the unwashed hordes just don’t know what’s good for them. Such paternalistic sentiment has been a feature of all the royal commissions and inquiries in some form or another. In that respect Leveson is no different as therein we are witness to an unspoken contempt not only for the likes of News International’s Paul McMullen, Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch, but also for the very people who read the tabloids.

Paradigm repair

Of course, Leveson is just the latest in a series of inquiries, royal commissions, parliamentary select committee reports to scrutinise the press and its activities (see O’Malley and Soley 2000). Adrian Bingham (2007) has noted that a familiar pattern has emerged as:

…ever since the first Royal Commission on the Press recommended the formation of a body to monitor the press in 1949, newspaper proprietors have fought to ensure that [such a body’s] powers were limited and that [newspapers] remained under the control of the industry (ibid: 89).

The pattern being that government pressure and the threat of statutory control has led the industry into making ‘tactical’ concessions in order to stave off legal constraints. Bingham goes on to highlight how during the crisis of the press during the 1990s even the free market-extolling ‘Conservative party was convinced of the need for firm action to curb the excesses of the popular press, and was genuinely interested in introducing laws to protect privacy’ (ibid). Yet the familiar rhetoric from sections of the newspaper industry and particularly the ‘feral beasts’ has so far been enough to mollify the threats to their commercial interests in the name of ‘free speech’ and ‘freedom of the press’ (Petley 2011; Steel 2012).

As well as projecting and amplifying anxieties about the morality and practices of the popular press into the public domain once more, the Leveson Inquiry is also significant in the context of anxieties within the industry itself. The so-called ‘crisis of journalism’ has also demonstrated a sense that journalism is, at best, going through rapid and chaotic change; at worst it is at risk from both economic and technological transformations which will reshape journalism significantly (see Zelizer 2009; Lee-Wright, Phillips and Witschge 2012; Peters and Broersma 2012). In addition to the range of structural alterations journalism is attempting to deal with, journalism as a professional identity could also be said to be in existential crisis. From Jayson Blair to Johann Hari, the Gilligan affair to the recent controversies at the BBC’s flagship news programme Newsnight, these controversies have brought with them challenges both to orthodox conceptions of journalism and its role (see Nerone 1995), but also to the processes and practices of journalism and journalism’s very identity (see Anderson, Bell and Shirky 2012).

How has journalism responded to this threat? One might draw on theories about ‘Boundary Maintenance’ and ‘Paradigm Repair’ (Bishop 1999; Berkowitz 2000) to examine the way in which journalism has constantly sought to reaffirm its core responsibilities through a process of self-correction following crisis. As Eldridge (2012) has stated, journalism’s introspective scolding of its own failures seeks to rehabilitate journalism’s failings and restate its core values and role. It tends to do so ‘by criticising and excoriating failed adherence’ to a set of ideals. We saw such a process unfolding after the death of Princess Diana (in August 1997), after the Hutton Report (into the strange death of UN weapons inspector Dr David Kelly) of October 2010, during the recent WikiLeaks controversies and the latest crisis in journalism at BBC (over Savile/Newsnightgate). Journalism is yet again engaged in a process of ‘boundary maintenance’ being forced to confront bad practice by reasserting a set of core values (Eldridge 2012).

Framed in this way the Leveson process can be seen as another example of self-correction through purging and reconstitution via renegotiation, a renegotiation which comes to life in this instance through the narratives concerning self-regulation. Of course the dominant discourse has been one which refers to journalism’s Fourth Estate role and whether it’s the Daily Mirror’s Bill Greig echoing the 1949 Royal Commission’s report by noting that ‘it is generally agreed that the British Press is second to none in the world’ (Greig 1949: 2), or Lord Justice Leveson regurgitating the watchdog trope (Leveson 2012a: 78), the tired mythology seems to remain intact.

Civic malaise?

In addition to the barely concealed class contempt amid attempts at rehabilitation, the inquiry and the subsequent media ‘navel gazing’ highlight a far more damaging trend in British political and cultural life, one that betrays a complete lack of faith in public institutions and a deep suspicion of civic life itself. Rather than a solution to the ‘problem of journalism’, Leveson is symptomatic of a more deep-seated socially constituted contempt for civic life. Given the seemingly never ending parade of high profile scandals involving the police, MPs, the royal family, the judiciary and even fallen celebrities, one might legitimately ask: ‘is it any wonder that we’re highly disillusioned with the political classes and public figures?’

It could be argued that such scandals merely highlight the imperfections of human nature. However, I think it is far too simplistic to point the finger at the fallen heroes and other public figures and blame them for our lack of faith in public life. Colin Hay, in his book Why we hate politics (2007), has attempted to trace the seeds of public dissatisfaction and disengagement with politics and the widespread cynicism associated with public life. He has suggested that the seeds of disengagement from politics stem from a pessimistic view about public life which in part emerges from politics itself. This comes about because we have come to assume, with good reason, that politicians and public figures tend to act in their own best interest at the expense of the public interest.

The problem with politicians historically is that they tend to be looking for the best ways in which they can secure and subsequently stay in power by appealing to those who can offer the best guarantees of keeping them there. In their attempts to gain and keep power, politicians have attempted to maximise votes based on an appeal to as many people as possible irrespective of the consequences (ibid). Despite trying to appeal to everyone, politicians often end up disappointing a great majority of the public. The reality is that politicians do not have the capacity, expertise or often desire to deal with the harsh political decisions they face because they are effectively ‘spinning far too many plates’. The result being that genuine democratic legitimacy is a myth and by attempting to retain power, political parties have made unrealistic and undeliverable promises to the electorate and the consequences have often been a failure (ibid).

Hay points to the economic crises of the 1970s as pivotal as they helped shape the view that politicians and political institutions were essentially the problem. The political institutions were overloaded and overburdened and the only ‘rational response’ was to distance politics from the responsibility of economic management as much as possible. Enter the politics of the New Right which would assert the rationality of the market as a cure for dealing with the problems of society. The consequence of this, of course, was that politicians themselves and other political elites increasingly saw the limitations of politics and became pessimistic about the opportunities to change society. The Public Choice theories so lauded by the New Right provided the intellectual seeds of contemporary public malaise.

Even today there is evidence that politicians lack conviction and a belief that politics and particularly political ideas can generate meaningful change in society. Hay points to an increasing trend within contemporary politics to disempower itself and remove heavy burdens from its shoulders. Whether it is the crisis in the Eurozone, the management of the National Heath Service or of the BBC, politicians according to Hay are increasingly giving up the ghost and either passing powers to un-elected technocrats or ensuring that society’s problems are confronted by market forces. The sense is that political and social problems are best managed by experts and not by people who have been elected by the public to do a job. Moreover, it’s the ‘Invisible Hand’ which is posited as the saviour of society’s ills.

The seeds of de-politicisation, then, according to Hay, lay in the effective gradual removal of political responsibility and political debate from the public sphere. ‘Party leaders present themselves as credible and competent administrators, not for the most part, as principled advocates of a set of policy preferences’ but as managers who delegate. ‘[P]ersonality rather than policy content is what the electorate is increasingly [being] asked to adjudicate on in elections – and it has very little to go on in making such an assessment’ (ibid: 119). As Andrew Gamble maintains: ‘It is the irony of contemporary politics that many of the forces which have helped weaken and destroy traditional forms of authority have been “conservative” forces’ (Gamble 2000: 66). As such it is the market itself and the rise of political pragmatism that have undermined traditional forms of authority and accountability.

A similar perspective emerges from Furedi (2005) who maintains that a form of ‘political exhaustion’ now pervades many liberal democratic societies as political elites and voters have become cynical about the power of political ideals to change society and instead ‘defer to fate’ (ibid: 29).‘The continuous disparagement of politicians in popular culture and the media suggests that what we are experiencing is not simply the exhaustion of politics but the rise of cynicism and even hostility to it (ibid: 28). Politics is increasingly aligned with consumer choice (Lees-Marshment 2004) in which the politics of identity and individualism has replaced a sense of shared political obligation. Kenan Malik (2012) also emphasises a more structural analysis to the problems of civic culture. The erosion of political authority through a ‘hollowing out’ of politics away from the politics of class has enabled the media itself to fill the void left by traditional political allegiances. In doing so the ‘media has assumed its position of unprecedented influence by default’ (ibid).

Concluding comments

While campaigners for media reform have criticised Leveson for the relatively limited scope of his inquiry, particularly in relation to issues of media plurality and diversity (Media Reform 2012), it is the lack of engagement with a broader structural and wider social analysis which I assert is the fundamental problem at issue here. Whatever avenue the government chooses to go down regarding the recommendations of the Leveson Report, the crisis of legitimacy in public institutions, political parties, and civic participation looks likely to remain. Media reform must explicitly relate to the democratic obligations of journalism which has to be framed in relation to political agency. This is the sense that politics matters and can be affected by people. However, journalism’s historic relationship with political elites and their intertwined symbiotic relationship, so acutely emphasised by Leveson, contributes to the widespread rejection of such engagement. Moreover, as long as the public is socially constructed as essentially self-serving, largely politically ignorant and in desperate need of guidance by some higher moral voice, we will remain at the margins of politics. Such a framing of the public extends the notion that politics must be reduced to a technical exercise in which maximisation of utility is a priority and the role of managing society is best served by technicians and experts. This view needs to be challenged and a reconnection with political agency is required.

I would suggest that journalism’s civic role cannot be rehabilitated unless we regain a conception of politics which starts to challenge the notion of politics as a technical exercise, or that social problems are best solved by the mechanics of the market. Until these problems are addressed journalism’s deliberative function will remain marginal. The wider cultural shift towards a more democratically engaged public and the forms of journalism envisaged by media reform groups cannot be brought about by merely reforming the press. Rather such a shift would more likely stem from a more critically engaged analysis of how we arrived here in the first place. In short, Leveson is ‘the wrong solution to the wrong problem’ (Malik 2012). Moreover, as Pippa Norris (2000) has argued, emphasising the media’s role in contributing to political disengagement is somewhat missing the point as:

[b]laming the news media is easy but ultimately that is a deeply conservative strategy, [as] it diverts attention from the urgent need for real reforms to democratic institutions, which should have our undivided attention (Norris 2000: 319).

Fundamentally, by attempting to rehabilitate journalism via Leveson, it could be that we are ignoring more fundamental problems affecting politics and civil society of which Leveson is but a symptom.


[1] I would like to thank Scott Eldridge II for his helpful comments and suggestions

[2] Three royal commissions, two Calcutt Reviews and the Younger Commission on Privacy. See also O’Malley and Soley (2000)


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Note on the contributor

John Steel is a Lecturer in the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of a number of articles on press freedom and media censorship, journalism and technological change and journalism education. He has recently published his first book Journalism and free speech (Routledge, 2012) and is currently co-editing The Routledge Companion To British Media History with Martin Conboy. He is also editing a forthcoming special edition of Media History which focuses on exploring the language of popular journalism. Email: