Too many stories in too many newspapers were the subject of complaints from too many people, with too little in the way of titles taking responsibility or considering the consequences for the individuals involved. — Leveson Report (2012)
He was regarded with some distain for “prejudging” the report, but British Prime Minister David Cameron did have good reason to be reserved about the regulatory recommendations of the Leveson Report. Lord Justice Leveson recommended, among other things, an “underpinning” for a new independent system of press regulation to target what essentially had become a disease in the press establishment. The entire barrel of apples had to be carted out.
Codes of ethical behaviour have their place. It might even be claimed, for all its difficulties, that an outline of ethics is required when it comes to the behaviour of the press. But the point made my Leveson was that members of the media gave little thought to any code whatsoever. “There has 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 like the Dowlers, the McCanns and Abigail Witchalls.”
Leveson was particularly harsh on employees of the now defunct The News of the World. “Most corporate entities would be appalled that employees were involved in the commission of crime in order to further their business. Not so at the News of the World. When the police sought to execute a warrant, they were confronted and driven off by the staff of the newspaper.”
Where a press is regulated, censorship is bound to rear its ugly head. Self-censorship, in any case, is a habit newspapers have perfected over the centuries. They don’t need encouragement. Leveson advocates self-regulation, backed by legislation – the hands of government. This is where opposition has been trenchant. There is little doubt that organisations such as The News of the World, with its sewerage mill style of journalism needed to be dealt with, but the very fact that the long arm of the law did, eventually, nab the outfit should not be ignored to begin with. It is also worth remembering that the law itself is a curious creature, used by governments and powerful citizens against the press to ensure that information that should otherwise be available is never released.
Advisors assisting the Leveson Inquiry have also questioned the zeal of the recommendations. Shami Chakrabati of the civil rights group Liberty has claimed that the suggested legislation would actually violate the Human Rights Act. “In a democracy, regulation of the press and imposing standards on it must be voluntary” (The Guardian, Dec 2).
Governments are habitual censors in any case, as fine a matter as it is for Leveson to suggest that the state protect freedom of the press. Leveson’s version of the liberal state is idyllic – obligations and duties that will be observed with civil reflection by citizen and state, at least on matters regarding the press.
The question then comes as to what avenues of redress are open to those whose privacy has been trammelled. Some individuals are prime figures for such intrusions, be they political figures or those of celebrity. It becomes questionable in those cases where private citizens. Penalties for such violations as phone hacking can be improved and clarified. This is simply not enough for some. Members of the campaign group Hacked Off feel that Leveson is perfectly in order, and have about 90,000 signatures in support of the measures. But legal remedies are available, albeit imperfect. The law of defamation in Britain, to take one conspicuous example, is notoriously illiberal, ensuring that press “freedom” is limited.
Any regulatory mechanism that denies a voluntary framework will provide a field day for bureaucrats and middle managers keen to enforce some dubious standard of morality. Leveson has argued that the new body will not regulate the press directly or give government the means to interfere with what papers publish. But regulators tend to be pathological. We are potentially at risk of supplanting one form of abuse with another.