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The weakest link

David Khabaz welcomes the Leveson Report but sees a glaring gap on media ownership.

In his eloquently compiled and voluminous report, Lord Justice Leveson outlines a number of very important recommendations for future practices in the media industry. The Report calls for greater transparency in an industry, which, in essence, has lost the public's trust. In his highly sophisticated and cultured document, Leveson calls for a new regulatory body sanctioned by the law. This recommendation was warmly received by most commentators [though not the Prime Minister] who support the idea of a politically independent self-regulatory system that, amongst other benefits, would restore public trust.

In operational terms, setting up a judge-led inquiry has a number of advantages. Damian Tambini argues that 'when compared to previous government-appointed Royal Commissions on the Press… Leveson's Inquiry enjoyed genuine operational independence from both press and government, and legitimacy from all sides of the debate. This was hugely important at a time when there was widespread loss of trust in the ability of politicians to deal with powerful media interests.'

Whilst this is certainly a well-executed and detailed inquiry, the Report has failed to address the fundamental cause that made the enquiry a necessity in the first place. Leveson's Report simply sidestepped the question of concentration of ownership in British media and avoided making detailed recommendations for the limits on media ownership. Similarly, the Report overlooks the implications of the relationship between News International and successive governments since Thatcher, and how this might have contributed to some of the appalling journalistic practices of recent years.

Harold Evans, the former editor of the Sunday Times is equally alarmed with Leveson's oversight. 'It matters very much that the law on competition was broken by Margaret Thatcher's participation in 1981 in a secret deal by which Times Newspapers came under News International's control. All Leveson's fine language in his Report about the need for future transparency is justified by the vaguest of references to what made it necessary in the first place. It surely matters a great deal that the greatest concentration of the British press was achieved by a backroom deal that gave News International such sway over British public life'.

Leveson's report, it seems, has blatantly ignored the appalling disparity and the absence of plurality in Britain's media industry. News International currently enjoys 36% of the newspaper market in this country; this concentration of ownership certainly poses a danger to a media industry which is 'fit for purpose'.

Media is vital towards democratic processes in an open society. Britain needs an independent media to challenge powerful organisations. Our parliamentary democracy depends on politically-independent media to create public podiums in order to encourage debate on various issues without 'fear or favour'. More importantly, as Mark Thompson argues, 'a society's most inclusive conversations with itself are conducted through the media. If those media do not reflect society in all its facets, all its complexity, that conversation becomes distorted and simplistic in ways that nourish intolerance.

It is rather ironic that the coalition government's Business Secretary, Vince Cable, publicly expressed his concern about the consequences of concentration of ownership in British media. In a BBC interview, Cable said "we have learned from the past that having media moguls dominating the British media is deeply unhelpful, not simply in terms of plurality but because of the wider impact on the political world". Describing the presence of a few 'press barons' as 'deeply unhelpful', Cable advocated a 'limit on presumption against media groups owning both newspapers and TV stations.

To be fair, Leveson does condemn Murdoch for failing to react when the evidence of 'casual and cavalier' journalism on News of the World emerged through Max Mosley's case. The Report highlights the fact that 'although Mr Murdoch would no doubt wish to countenance the deployment of tactics tantamount to blackmail, his more general observations about the doing of favours and back-scratching are extremely revealing as to the culture, practices and the ethics of the press more generally; - far more so than simply in the circumstances which he was then discussing'.

That said, Leveson entirely discounts the underlying notion that a media organisation owned by a powerful corporation cannot be 'entirely autonomous' and most journalists employed by that corporation are effectively at the service of the powerful employers. Leveson admits the media have 'wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people', but the Report fails to recognise the fact that the concentration of media ownership is structurally and ethically flawed. For the media to serve the public interest, the public themselves must be at the heart of media operations. For this reason, a recommendation for greater institutional and legal restrictions on media monopolies would have been a major step forward towards redressing this glaring gap in Leveson's Report.