Hard News by Russell Brown


Looking at Leveson

At the centre of the report from Britain's Leveson inquiry is one big thing: a proposal for a new, independent press regulator to operate at arm's length from both government and the media industry, underpinned by statute. In its own discussion paper on "rights, responsibilities and regulation in the digital age," our own Law Commission arrived at a fairly similar place. They got there from completely different directions.

Leveson was the consequence of a series of revelations that long-established mainstream media organisations, owned by wealthy and identifiable proprietors, had engaged in predatory behaviour that damaged the welfare and privacy of British citizens and had a corrupting effect on major social institutions. The LawComm's review was the result of an order from a government minister with a spotty record on core legal principles in response to ... well, Whaleoil, basically.

While the New Zealand review is predicated on the idea that "new" and "old" media converge around common characteristics, Lord Justice Leveson virtually discounts the similarities:

The point I am making is a more modest one, namely that the internet does not claim to operate by express ethical standards, so that bloggers and others may, if they choose, act with impunity. The press, on the other hand, does claim to operate by and adhere to an ethical code of conduct. Publishers of newspapers will be (or, at least, are far more likely to be) far more heavily resourced than most, if not all, bloggers and websites that report news (as opposed to search engines that direct those on line to different sites). Newspapers, through whichever medium they are delivered, purport to offer a quality product in all senses of that term.

As Nick Dale put it, it's as if websites aren't expected to tell the truth.

Further: few people outside the interest groups will be familiar with the Law Commission review -- but the results of Leveson are, as were its deliberations, front-page news.

In part that's because Leveson operates with the same cast of characters that did so well for the predatory papers in the first place. It's like a tabloid news version of The Expendables: the McCanns, Hugh Grant, Milly Dowler's family, Steve Coogan, that guy the tabloids told everyone was a paedo murderer -- they're back! There are the politicians -- even a cameo from Tony Blair. And there are the real-life grotesques of the Fleet Street owners and editors. If there was a prize for sheer contempt, surely it would go to the Daily Mail's editor Paul Dacre.

There are, of course, serious and valid discussions of principle. Five of the six assessors on the inquiry agreed with Lord Justice Leveson on the need for a regulator with statutory backing: the exception being Shami Chakrabarti, the director of civil liberties group Liberty, who is an articulate and capable advocate:

 She is not alone, of course. Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator, was quick to hail the "Tory principles" of Prime Minister David Cameron in rejecting any legislative backing for an independent regulator (there's a clip of Cameron's Leveson response in Parliament at that link too), but it's also hard not to wonder what has been said in Cameron's recent meetings with newspaper publishers and editors.

Because, to be frank, some of those editors seem to be as disingenuous, self-serving and mendacious as they ever were. Earlier this month, The Daily Mail ran a preposterous report over a full 11 pages alleging "disturbing questions" around a key Leveson advisor. The Sun's political editor Trevor Kavanagh pleaded with the public in a cynical column that attempts to divide phone-hacking victims into the deserving (anyone who's had a family member killed or kidnapped) and undeserving (anyone famous for anything else). The public, Kavanagh declares, has "little or no" compassion for the latter. The opinion polls suggest otherwise.

The Mail on Sunday betrayed not a bit of shame in uttering a hyperbolic endorsement of Shami Chakrabarti's view that statutory regulation would be in conflict with the Human Rights Act:

This, of course, was music to the Mail's ears, enabling the paper to write the headline: "His law to gag press is illegal" and to wrap the startled Shami Chakrabarti in its embrace only four months after thundering in an editorial: "Human rights is a charter for criminals and parasites" - an issue so serious that "our anger is no longer enough".

This seems to me to be a principal problem for the non-legislated independent regulator that Cameron and others believe is within reach. Can you trust people who have repeatedly demonstrated their ethical shortcomings and their raging self-interest to design their own regulatory process? And to stick to it over time? 

I think the issue of a regulator having a statutory basis is much less of a problem if its actions are limited to the finding of fact and moral sanction. But the kind of people who run some of Britain's press are arguably not the kind of people on whom moral sanctions would weigh heavily.

Like the Law Commission, Leveson countenances a new, low-cost arbitration panel as part of a new regulatory structure -- and that may actually be the best hope of getting publishers to opt into regulation, if opting in implies protection from significant defamation costs.

We'll be discussing Leveson and its implications on Media3 this week -- with former British Labour shadow minister Bryan Gould, who has, as you might expect, followed the controversy closely. I'm looking forward to it.

If you'd like to come to Thursday's Media3 recording, we'll need you to present yourself at the Villa Dalmacija ballroom, New North Road, at 5.30pm. There will be potato salad.

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