Life after Leveson

The findings of the Leveson Inquiry expected at end of Nov 2012

At the end of this month, Lord Justice Leveson will release his long awaited report into the culture, practices and ethics of the British media as well as the role of the police and the press in the News of the World phone hacking scandal.

Earlier this year, we remembered the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic that took place a hundred years ago on the 15th of April, 1912.

These two unconnected events may have more in common than at first glance.
Veteran broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby feared the BBC resembled a “rudderless ship heading towards the rocks” – a prescient view that came ahead of George Entwistle’s inevitable resignation on Saturday night over yet another lapse of judgment in the corporation’s news coverage over sex abuse claims on its Newsnight programme.
The analogy with the Titanic probably hadn’t escaped Jonathan Dimbleby’s sense of history and perhaps reflects what many people feel not just about the BBC but the state of the British media in general.

As they say, you get the reputation you deserve and certain elements of the British media, including the BBC, haven’t covered themselves in glory, that’s for sure.
Of course it’s unfair to tarnish all quarters of the British media with the same brush, but as those who work in public relations will tell you, perception is everything and now a question mark hangs in the air over the standards of journalism in the UK.
At a time where the media is making front page news, not merely reporting it, the public can be forgiven for getting lost trying to follow the twists and turns that such a multi-faceted story appears to be taking on an hour by hour basis. And no doubt the media reporting Leveson’s findings will further compound this state of affairs.
Leaving aside the apparent incompetency of journalists and the future of an accident-prone BBC, there’s a lot of nonsense being reported about ‘press regulation’ and ‘statutory control’ that many MPs are now calling for in the wake of serious lapses of judgment and infringement of civil liberties at the hands of a few powerful journalists that have acted outside of the law.
It’s a safe bet to assume that something has to change in the wake of Leveson.
The Prime Minister David Cameron is holding his cards close to his chest but given that he used to the responsible for directing communications at Carlton TV before he got involved in the cut and thrust of politics, I doubt whether he comes from the school of thought that statutory control over the British media is the answer.
Just look at the mess that the BBC is in and it’s meant to be accountable to the licence fee payer. But it would be wrong to use the current crisis engulfing the British media to destroy its importance in a free and democratic society.
More than two decades after the UNESCO Windhoek conference in 1991, the sanctity of the independence of the media remains the cornerstone and a defining feature of a democratic society.
“Consistent with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy on a nation and for economic development.”
The definition of a ‘free press’ now of course includes social media such as Facebook where ordinary citizens can come together and share a voice loud enough to topple Governments, as they did in Egypt in the wake of “We are all Khaled Said” which referred to a 28-year old Egyptian arrested six months earlier and beaten to death while he was held in detention.
The Facebook campaign soon snowballed from thousands to more than a million supporters online and became one of the most powerful rallying points in denouncing the regime’s violence and abuse.
Today, most reasonably minded people recognise the need for the law to protect the right of freedom of expression, as enshrined under the Human Rights Act 1998. But such a freedom needs to be counter-balanced with a corresponding duty to exercise that freedom responsibly.
Lord Hunt, current outgoing chairman of the Press Complaints Commission has appealed to the government and Lord Justice Leveson not to introduce statutory regulation of the press, even though he admits having sympathy with the ‘Hacked Off’ campaign led by actor Hugh Grant.

Actor Hugh Grant wants statutory controls over the freedom of the press

Hunt argues that the vast majority of newspapers and journalists behave within the law and the industry shouldn’t be penalised because of the alleged criminality of a few rogue journalists at the now defunct News of the World.

His favoured outcome is the setting up of a new regulator with power to investigate and fine that could be up and running almost immediately if the government or Leveson give it the green light. The failure of the PCC to investigate phone hacking wasn’t a failure of self-regulation because the commission didn’t have the necessary powers to take such action, he says.

His plea for self-regulation is likely to fall on deaf ears given he still represents an organisation that has singularly failed to demonstrate its ability at keeping its own house in order.
Life after Leveson may resemble something closer to the Irish model where ‘statutory underpinning’ of the press regulator doesn’t quite cross the line of state control of the media.
The Press Council of Ireland (PCI) and the Office of Press Ombudsman work in cooperation to keep a check on the country’s national press and have a mandate to do so from the National Union of Journalists and representatives of newspaper owners, both regional and national.

As in the UK, the threat of privacy legislation and the prospect of law reform on defamation provided an impetus for cooperation but the statutory underpinning emerged from a lengthy consultative process within the industry.

Lord Hunt is drinking in the last chance saloon

Many politicians and lawyers wanted a statutory Press Council but this was resisted by the creation of a credible alternative which might at best be described as co-regulation.

Leveson may wish to pull back from recommending full statutory control of the British press and consider the lessons learned from the Irish experience that may go some way in restoring the reputation of a battered profession.

Ardi Kolah is author of Essential Law for Marketers 2nd edition (£19.99), published by Kogan Page, Jan 2013

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  • Pamela Mounter

    What a useful drawing together of the various strands Ardi.  However my fear is that those who use social media to pursue private vendettas or cause vicious mischief will continue to act with impunity, free from whatever controls/checks/balances are put in place for the traditional press.

  • ArdiKolah

    Thanks Pamela. 

    Laws already exist to deal with the issue of defamation as you describe. The real issue is enforcement of those laws and this is where an obligation on the ISPs and the owners of social networks to assist in the tracking down of someone who has committed an offence is required. Progress has been made in this area and of course more could be done.