Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
WHO will guard the guards themselves? It is clear that Lord Justice Leveson has heard and attempted to take on board the loudly expressed fears of the British press of the dangers to freedom of expression of state regulation of the media. His solution in yesterday’s report into “the culture, practices and ethics of the press”: instead of regulating the press directly, a state body could regulate the performance of the press’s “independent” regulator. Ofcom, the regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, could act as a “backstop regulator” to monitor what would be effectively a radically reformed and reinvigorated Press Complaints Commission (PCC), now seen as a toothless and ineffective pawn of the industry.
Yet, although the suggestion is an improvement on the idea of direct state supervision, the need to legislate a role for Ofcom would still dangerously open the door to political interference in the press, an opportunity that politicians may find difficult to resist.
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Leveson recommends that, crucially, a new PCC would require both a lay majority and chair appointed by a “fair and open process” independent of both industry and government. It would be able to impose fines of up to 1 per cent of turnover to a maximum of £1 million.
And, to encourage buy-in by individual papers his report also urges the establishment of a system, underpinned by legislation, akin to the Irish model under which, instead of the courts, the PCC could establish a low-cost libel and privacy tribunal to fast-track and simplify the handling of complaints. In assessing damages courts would take account of whether complained-of papers had signed up to the disciplines of such a process.
In truth, if Leveson has produced a stick to beat the press, as many Fleet Street editors hold, it is one fashioned for their own backs by themselves. Editors have drunk themselves stupid in countless “last chance saloons”, convinced no-one would curb their excesses. They certainly do not have the moral high ground.
His inquiry, set up in the wake of the revelation that a mobile phone belonging to the missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler had been hacked by the News of the World, was the sixth since 1945 and is a devastating indictiment of misconduct “over decades”. Since its establishment, reports of hacking, illegal interference with emails, corruption of the police, and unhealthy political relationships have mushroomed.
Leveson is rightly highly critical of sections of the press, describing its behaviour as “outrageous”, that it had “wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”, and that there had been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories “almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected”.
His report describes a willingness in the industry to use covert surveillance, misrepresentation and deception in circumstances where it is difficult to see any public interest justification. Difficult? Impossible.
Over the last 30-35 years and longer, he argues, political parties have had or developed too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest. The judge says British prime minister David Cameron’s closeness to senior News International (NI) I executives like Rebekah Brooks had created a problem of “public perception”, although he accepted there was no “deal” of newspaper support for the expectation of policy favours. But “a free press in a democracy holds power to account but with a few honourable exceptions, the UK press has not performed that vital role.”
And although he criticises police failure to investigate allegations of phone-hacking, and calls for a new framework for the relationship with the media, he says he has seen no reason to doubt the integrity of the police.
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The report, unfortunately and surprisingly, does not deal with the malign effect on the media/political culture of the concentration of press ownership. NI has 37 per cent of the UK market share, a reality, rather than Rupert Murdoch’s charm, which gave him the enormous political clout he was happy to wield. Sir John Major testified that Murdoch demanded a change of his government’s EU stance under threat of withdrawal of NI papers’ support.
There is also a strong element of closing doors after horses have bolted. Leveson’s remit does not examine the now all-pervasive world of the internet and social media where, as Lord McAlpine discovered recently, there appear to be no constraints on publication.
Sadly it is precisely those parts of the media, the press, which do genuinely hold power to account which do fund investigation and expose malfeasance, and whose freedom is truly vital to democracy, which may, courtesy of Leveson, lose the protections which others will continue to enjoy unfettered.