Friday 30 November 2012

Leveson and Disability, Ships Passing in the Night

We’re not imagining it, the Leveson report admits there really is an anti-disability agenda in the press. You just have to dig deep to find the admission!

The press coverage has inevitably focussed on the recommendations for press regulation, and the PM’s instant retreat from it into a lock-in with the hacks in the Last Chance Saloon (which the Press were told they were inhabiting after the last press inquiry in 1990 following the death of Princess Diana), but that forgets that Leveson took a huge amount of evidence, written as well as in person, and the report is not only his recommendations, but his analysis of that evidence and with it the way that the contemporary press behaves.

While it was phone hacking and the Millie Dowler and Maddie McCann cases that dominated the press coverage, evidence was submitted to the Inquiry about the way that disabled people have been systematically demonised by the press, but unfortunately Lord Leveson refused to call disability groups to give evidence, restricting them to written evidence.

Time and again as you skim through the huge (2000 pages) report you find a section where you think that Leveson is about to talk about disability, but then he shies away again and very little of substance is actually said. He actually raises it in a section in Volume II entitled ‘Harm’ and with the spiralling disability hate crime rates you think that surely here is where he will talk about disability, after all he’s going into detail in the section on the complete fabrication of anti-Muslim stories and the outing and ridiculing of Trans people unfortunate enough to draw media attention, but then he falters at the final hurdle and disability is reduced to ‘them too’. The value for disabled people here is his conclusion that groups as well as individuals need to be able to call on a press regulator to protect them, all too often the PCC has simply dismissed complaints about the most outrageous attacks on disabled people because no individuals are named, but it is still an opportunity missed.

Leveson finally hits his disability stride in the next section, reporting three media stories around ESA stats, one from the Mail, one from the Sun, one from the Express, and all three particularly egregious examples of their kind. Leveson concludes that the stories are clearly inaccurate, indeed that there is no reasonable way to draw the conclusions being trumpeted in headlines alleging “94% of incapacity benefits [sic] can work”. Leveson tacitly accepts the conclusion that there is a clear anti-disability agenda at work, which could actually be hugely valuable, because it is further official recognition, after that of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, that there has been a concerted press campaign to demonise us. Disturbingly, even in this section the evidence from disability groups and from journalist Katharine Quarmby, author of the seminal ‘Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People’ goes unreferenced, it is only the evidence from media accuracy group Full Fact, with additional reference to the concerns of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, that features in Leveson’s analysis. It would seem the learned judge hasn’t come across Nothing For Us, Without Us.

A full half of Volume III is devoted to Data Protection, and with data on ‘vulnerable’ people drawing additional protection under the Data Protection Act, together with certain notorious cases such as Gordon Brown’s child, you would expect disability to crop up once or twice, sadly it seems not to occur even once. Volume IV does have one interesting revelation, that in 2005 the PCC lobbied against a European Directive that would have outlawed audio-visual content that incited hatred on the grounds of, amongst other things, disability, because that would ‘infringe on editorial prerogatives’ (even though audio-visual content is barely relevant to the PCC). It is quite frightening that the press regulator will go out and lobby in defence of an editor’s right to bigotry, but not to defend vulnerable minorities against it.

Volume IV does address our needs when Lord Leveson returns to the subject of discrimination against groups rather than individuals, arguing that there is no good reason why the press regulator should not address this, and impose sanctions and redress if that is required. This has been a substantial weakness of the existing press regulation and we shouldn’t underestimate how significant a change it could be, but we need it to be wrapped up in a press regulatory mechanism that does address incitement to hatred, and I think Leveson has shied away from that, in fact he acknowledges in a later section that harm of this kind is difficult to address through self-regulation (which is another reason to line up against Cameron’s refusal to legislate). Unfortunately that is the last reference to disability in the Report, though it had rapidly become clear that the Report was not going to instantly reverse the campaign of vilification that continues to be directed at us.

In her piece for Channel 4 News, Katharine Quarmby perhaps nails the true problem with Leveson and disability, talking about his refusal to call disability groups to give evidence before the Inquiry and saying he “displayed the nervousness around disability that so characterises the elite” and ultimately glossed over it rather than try to understand the politics that surround us. Unfortunately that means a deeper analysis of press demonisation of disabled people is now a discussion for the next inquiry into press ethics – it’s a pity we only have them once a generation....

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