Media under fire

Print edition : December 28, 2012

The Justice Leveson report is a scathing indictment of the excesses of the British press. The political establishment is, however, divided on its call for statutory control of the media.

in London

LORD JUSTICE BRIAN LEVESON at the unveiling of his report in central London on November 29.-REUTERS

IN Tom Stoppards play Night and Day, a satire on the British news media, one character says to another: No matter how imperfect things are, if youve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.

The other replies with a touch of impatience: Im with you on the free press. Its the newspapers I cant stand.

In a different setting, it could well be Lord Justice Leveson delivering these lines. Indeed, his verdict on British newspapers after a nearly year-long inquiry provoked by the News of the World phone-hacking scandal sounded very much like the Stoppard characters view of newspapers.

Addressing a hall packed with journalists, rights campaigners and victims of media excesses minutes after the publication of his report on November 29, Lord Leveson began by extolling the virtues of a free press, describing it as a bedrock of democracy, etc., but was soon in Stoppard territory with a withering attack on newspapers that evoked the image of someone mercilessly shredding the morning edition page by page.

The newspapers, he thundered, had been running roughshod over every ethic in the book with their reckless and outrageous behaviour. They had wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people for many decades by putting sensationalism above the public interest. With a few honourable exceptions, most behaved as though they were above the law.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON. He is criticised for his pussy-footing on Leveson's proposals.-ANDREW COWIE/AFP

There have been too many times when chasing the story, part of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist. This has caused real hardship and, on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained, Lord Leveson pointed out, reminding the audience that his inquiry itself was a reaction to widespread public revulsion over the hacking scandal that included hacking the phone of a murdered schoolgirl.

It was his day and he was not going to mince his words. The journalists right to free speech was all very well and he was all for it, but what about responsibility that came with itand the obligation to be accountable to those they claimed to serve?

The press has to be accountable to the public in whose interests it claims to be acting and must show respect for the rights of others.... The answer to the question who guards the guardians, should not be no one, he said.

AT A PROTEST: "Rupert Murdoch" burns a copy of the report as "Cameron", gagged, watches.-JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP

Lord Levesons 2,000-page report, which he described as the most concentrated look at the press this country has ever seen, does not spare politicians either. It says that over the years, politicians got too close to the press in a way which has not been in the public interest and has undermined public confidence. While rejecting allegations of explicit or covert deals between senior politicians and newspaper proprietors or editors, it says there have been exchanges of influence that raise legitimate questions.

The press, the report says, has a right to lobby, but the process must be more transparent to avoid perception of bias. Politicians, on their part, should make policies on the basis of the public interest rather than on their personal links with the press.

The police get a rap on the knuckle for their poor judgement and poor execution of their original inquiry into hacking allegations, creating a perception that senior officers were too close to News International, Rupert Murdochs media group and publishers of News of the World. But it clears Scotland Yard of allegations of a culture of corruption.

Levesons solution

So, what is the way out of the mess considering that self-regulation has failed miserably with the industry-controlled Press Complaints Commission (PCC) having proved to be not fit for the purpose?

MEMBERS OF 'HACKED OFF', an organisation that fights for the victims of press abuse, in London.-JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP

Lord Levesons answer is independent regulation backed by legislation to restore public trust both in the media and the governmentand to prevent another News of the World-style scandal. He has recommended the creation of a new regulatory body to replace the discredited PCC. Such a body should be truly independent of the newspaper industry and the government, with no place on it for any serving editor or politician.

In order to be able to provide fair and quick redress to victims of media excesses, it should have sufficient powers including the power to levy fines of up to 1 million on offending newspapers and direct the nature, extent and placement of apologies. In other words, the current practice where newspapers get away with burying the apology in the most obscure of places even though the original offending story may have been a front page splash will not do.

Much to the medias relief but to the disappointment of its victims, Lord Leveson stopped short of calling for state regulationthe so-called nuclear option that he was widely speculated to be considering. Indeed, he was at pains to stress that his proposal did not imply state control as some had tried to make out.

This is not statutory regulation of the press. I am proposing independent regulation of the press, organised by the press itself, he insisted.

The reaction

But, for many in the media, both on the Right and the Left, even this was a step too far. Independent regulation was fine, said Murdochs flagship paper The Times, but it did not require statutory underpinning.

The left-wing Independent was even more shrill in rejecting a legislative framework, describing it as the only but ... crucial flaw in Lord Levesons otherwise incisive report. Such a framework was not only unnecessary, but undesirable.

Among the mainstream national newspapers, only The Guardian had no quarrel with the proposal. In fact, it endorsed the idea and blamed newspapers for creating a situation where they needed to be reined in by outsiders.

Many in the press will disagree with the conclusion, but no journalist should fool themselves. The fact that the industry is threatened with statutory control is no one elses fault, it argued.

The political establishment is divided. While the Opposition Labour Party and the governments junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, have enthusiastically embraced the proposal, Prime Minister David Cameron believes it has the potential to infringe free speech and the free press, a view not shared by many of his own Members of Parliament.

We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and the free press, he said while broadly welcoming the Leveson principle of independent regulation.

In taking such a stance, Cameron is seen to be giving in to pressure from the powerful newspaper lobby, especially The Telegraph and Murdoch groups.

Victims of media excesses are furious. They have accused him of betraying them and ripping the heart and soul out of Lord Levesons report.

The Prime Minister leaves himself open to the accusation that what he is doing is simply, as too many Prime Ministers have done in the past, bowing to illegitimate pressure from a body which does not want to have its power curtailed in any shape or form, said Christopher Jeffries, a former schoolteacher and a victim of tabloid frenzy.

With the public opinion overwhelmingly in favour of the Leveson proposal, Cameron risks looking like the odd man out if he continues to drag his feet. At the time of going to the press, there are reports that he is trying to reach a cross-party consensus around an arrangement that would allow him to save his face without sacrificing the crucial elements of the Leveson proposal.

The inquiry, which was set up in July 2011, ran for eight months, cost 5 million, and took evidence from more than 300 witnesses, including politicians, media figures and victims of press harassment.

It was the seventh inquiry into press standards, and as Lord Leveson noted: No one in their right minds would contemplate an eighth [inquiry].

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