Leveson report unlikely to end debate on intrusion
ANALYSIS:Lord Justice Leveson was impressed with the Irish system, but his proposals differ from our model
After 16 months of hearing evidence from 337 witnesses and reading through 300 written submissions, Lord Justice Leveson yesterday issued the report of his inquiry into “the culture, practices and ethics of the press”.
As predicted for some time he has recommended a system that is underpinned by legislation but whose members are independent of government and politicians.
The inquiry was instigated following a revelation in the Guardian that the News of the World had hacked the phone of murder victim Milly Dowler (13), which led to calls for a boycott of the newspaper and those who advertise in it.
Over the past 16 months Milly Dowler was sometimes forgotten as celebrities of varying levels of talent spoke out against media intrusion.
Very quickly the controversy spread to the highest offices of News International and its relationship with the British government and the police. It also led to Rupert Murdoch appearing before a parliamentary committee. Out of this was born the Leveson inquiry.
It became fairly obvious that Lord Leveson was impressed with the Irish press regulation system. The Irish Press Ombudsman, Prof John Horgan, gave evidence, but did not say we had the panacea. It was the National Union of Journalists which suggested the Irish model as something worth exploring and so the idea of a legal underpinning of a press council was born.
It might appear to be a fruitless exercise looking to see if the regulatory regime of one country would serve as a model for another.
Newspapers tend to be culturally specific but looking to see if the Irish system would serve as a model for the UK might be an exception, given that many of the same newspapers are freely available in both countries, with many British newspapers, especially the tabloid ones, having Irish editions, Irish staff and Irish content mixed with British content.
It might be of interest to look at the reaction of some of those newspapers, which did accept and join up to a very different regime than was then operating in the UK.
While most of the Irish media accepted the need for a regulatory system, albeit with reluctance in some cases, many of the British newspapers with a presence in Ireland were strongly opposed. A number of Sunday Times Irish columnists, for instance, wrote pieces opposing the establishment here of the Press Council. Others warned of the threat to press freedom. Some feared, and correctly as it turned out, that an Irish statutory model might become a model for the UK.
The Irish Press Council and press ombudsman system was launched in January 2008, following years of debate and negotiation concerning the libel and defamation regime, considered even more draconian than that of the UK.
The system that emerged was a hybrid, a mixture of Britain’s Press Complaints Commission and the Scandinavian ombudsman. One of the more urgent tasks was convincing the government (and a sometimes sceptical public) that the proposed Press Council was independent and would not be a mouthpiece for the newspaper proprietors who were funding it.