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Raymond Snoddy 

Leveson on the press: "It all sounds rather depressing, actually"

Raymond Snoddy says that Lord Justice Leveson's quest for balance between press freedom and censorship leaves only one task outstanding - the creation of a new regulatory body for the British press...

It was a neat coincidence of timing that should help further to clarify the thinking of Lord Justice Leveson.

The rather bleak evidence from Claire Enders of Enders Analysis to the Leveson inquiry this week, on the economics of the national newspaper industry, came just as the Guardian Media Group was proving her point by unveiling increased losses for the year.

For Enders, there was the incontestable fact that newspapers had still not found the "magic bullet" for a digital-only future.

Lord Leveson has heard the outlines of the argument before but he cannot be told often enough, and Enders did it with admirable precision.

The digital "myth"

The Huffington Post

and other blog sites cannot possible fund the teams of journalists needed to handle complex stories such as the MPs expenses scandal or WikiLeaks - nor do they have the financial strength to face down the injunctions of a company such as Trafigura.

Readers spend 40 minutes a day reading a newspaper and 15 minutes per month merely "grazing" through their digital equivalents.

Therefore it should be no surprise to anyone that, according to Enders, the Mail Online's revenue was just £16 million in the last financial year, compared to the £608 million produced by the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday newspapers.

The "digital pennies" generated by newspapers did not even begin to pay for original hard news and, Enders argued, the economics of blog sites looked even worse.

Meanwhile, paper sales continued their apparently inevitable decline, putting pressure on finances at the more traditional end of the business.

"Sounds all rather depressing, actually", observed the Lord Justice with admirable acumen. "It's the way things are", responded Enders, who is not an absolutely flawless oracle.

Her gloomy predictions that half of the local press would be heading for closure before too long are mercifully turning out - so far - to be greatly exaggerated. However, she was certainly right on the cruel dilemmas facing the national newspaper industry.

We must accept, because he has said it so many times sometimes tetchily, that Leveson really does understand the concept of freedom of the press and is opposed to censorship.

After this week's evidence and events outside such as the MGG results we must hope that Lord Leveson has also fully taken on board the current economics of national newspaper production.

The state of the British newspaper industry

If there are any residual doubts about the matter, a quick read through the Guardian and Observer numbers should provide a refresher.

The two papers lost £44.2 million, compared with £31.4 million last year, even though overall revenues were only marginally down on last year's £198 million. The sales of both papers fell by around 10% year-on-year.

There was a 16% rise in digital revenues to £45.7 million, but only £14.7 million came from digital advertising, with the rest coming from other services such as Soulmates dating.

The group also took £70 million from its half share of the Auto Trader car buying website.

There are five-year plans and promises that this year will prove to be the high water mark of the losses.

However, without the help of the second-hand car market and online dating, the Guardian and Observer's journalism could be in a perilous position. As Lord Justice Leveson might say again - it all sounds rather depressing, actually.

Finding the right balance

The only hope is that when Lord Leveson goes on his holidays and starts to join up the dotted lines, he will begin to put a few things together in his mind: press freedom and the economics to make it all a worthwhile instead of a rather paltry, futile phenomenon.

He may also wonder whether there are more important issues than the rights of Max Mosley to practice sadomasochism in private, and the rights of actors to behave in a way that many in society believe is disgusting without any public rebuke. There is a balance here, and we must trust Lord Justice Leveson to find it.

In his search for balance and proportion, his Lordship might consider for a moment, though it is clearly outside his terms of reference, the activity of bankers and certain out-of-control sectors of the pharmaceutical industry.

It is increasingly clear that Lord Justice Leveson's main work has already been done. The misdeeds of the press, politicians and the police have been remorselessly exposed, week-in, week-out.

We can now assume that phone-hacking, serious bribing of the police and a far too cosy relationship between newspaper proprietors and politicians are things of the past.

The first two are criminal activities and can be, as they always should have been, dealt with by the law. You cannot regulate for politicians and the press having dinner together, but you can be transparent about such meetings, as prime minister David Cameron has promised to be.

Regulating the press

When you clear away all the undergrowth there remains only one relatively modest thing for Lord Leveson to do. He has to create a new regulatory body for the press. Not a tiny task, but surely one that is far from insurmountable.

It matters little whether it is called self-regulation or independent regulation; though it would be better than not to have a few people that know the newspaper industry involved, even if they have only the power to advise.

The big divide remains over whether there should be statutory regulation, underpinning or mere recognition in legislation.

Newspapers are different from broadcasting. They have historic and hard-won freedoms and a tradition and even a duty to be scurrilous and perhaps sometimes unfair.

This difference between an impartial BBC and an often partial press becomes more pronounced by economic circumstance and the completely unregulated internet.

It may not be perfect, but Lord Hunt's proposals for papers tied to a strengthened code by civil contract, with the possibility of significant fines for egregious breaches remains the best game in town.

As he enjoys his holidays, probably in the Italian lakes, Lord Leveson should most of all contemplate the art of the politically possible.

Your Comments

Thursday, 19 July 2010, 14:40 GMT

Dear Ray, since I made my oracular prediction, half the jobs in the regional and local press have gone. Sometimes, an oracle is unclear about how to express a forecast - Cassandra comes to mind - but we certainly have an exceptional record overall. As do you.
Best, Claire

Claire Enders
Founder
Enders Analysis
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