Leveson report unlikely to end debate on intrusion

Fri, Nov 30, 2012, 00:00

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.

It was absolutely necessary to ensure there was a system where members of civic society would be in the majority. The council ended up with a 13-member body of whom seven represented the public interest and six were, loosely speaking, industry representatives, one of whom represented the journalists and one the British press in Ireland.

In April 2010 the then minister for justice Dermot Ahern formally recognised the Press Council for the purposes of section 44 of the Defamation Act, 2009, the controversial legal underpinning. This provision was something that caused a number of articles to be published, especially in British-based newspapers, suggesting this was a slippery slope to government control.

The reason recognition was deemed to be necessary was for the purpose of the “fair and reasonable publication defence” provided for in the 2009 Act. A judge in a defamation case can now take into account the fact that a publication did or did not co-operate with the Press Council.

As media lawyer Andrea Martin, said: “Section 26 thus gives the code of practice and the findings of the Press Council an unusual form of quasi-enforceability in the courts.”

What is being recommended by Leveson is a form of regulation, which like the Irish system is underpinned by legislation.

However, the opposition to legislative underpinning is such that the real battle is only beginning. Already it is clear that the British coalition is split, and some newspapers, including those which have recognised the Irish system and have been actively involved in the Press Council, such as the Sun and the Mail, are totally opposed.

Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations do differ significantly from the Irish system. He is suggesting a much higher legal form of enforceability and also fines, up to £1 million.

The system here does not have power to fine miscreants.

If anyone thinks Leveson’s report will bring an end to the debates about phone hacking, press intrusion, privacy and regulation, they are deluded. Hacked Off, the lobby organisation seeking a better press regulatory system and on whose board sits Hugh Grant, broadly favours the judge’s recommendations, as does the National Union of Journalists, which was involved in planning the Irish system. It appears now that the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party favour it, but not the Tory party.

Though the newspaper industry does not favour any legal underpinning, it is not as one on what it would like to see, with a clear split between tabloid and broadsheet press.

So, as the public voice concerns about the trustworthiness of the British press in poll after poll, and as people migrate online for news – online publications were described at the hearings as the “elephant in the room” and were not part of the Leveson deliberations – the British press will continue, in the words of a former British government minister, David Mellor, to drink in the last chance saloon.


Michael Foley teaches journalism at the school of media, Dublin Institute of Technology

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