THE FATAL FLAW IN LEVESON
THERE are valuable lessons to be learned from the contortions Britain finds itself in through its attempts to regulate the media, which are as ill-conceived as the failed attempt at oppression proposed by the former Labor government in Australia.
These are not to be found in the esoteric points buried deep in the Royal Charter to establish a recognition panel, or the powers of the regulator – but in a tenet of all democracies based on the Westminster system. It is simply this: if the state has a hand in its regulation, it is no longer a free press.
This is inherent in the current cross-party Royal Charter and the role of politicians in its establishment and management – let alone its content. As a former editor of The Scotsman, John McLellan observed in response to the Charter: “Any system cooked up by politicians, which only politicians could control and change would not be self-regulation; it would be state control of the press.”
While the Charter represents the hand of state intervention, it is the nature of the inquiry by Lord Justice Brian Leveson that brought it into play. This is where the caravan was headed from the day British Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Leveson to conduct an inquiry that examined “the culture, practices and ethics of the press”. If these were found to be lacking, who was to deliver the fix?
The motivation for the inquiry was questionable from the outset, despite the nature of what had occurred at the former News of the World.
The first part of the inquiry was to deal specifically with the relationships between the press, the public, police and politicians, sparked by uproar over mobile phone hacking by journalists at the Sunday tabloid, and – as it was later established by police – its Fleet St counterparts.
Ironically, it was the reaction of the rival British press to the wayward News of the World and the opportunity to give its owner Rupert Murdoch the kicking they believed he deserved that forced Cameron’s hand. In the background, of course, was the British Labour Party, which has a loathing for Mr Murdoch that dates back to the days of Wapping in 1986-87.
Now they are reaping what they had sown.
The inquiry swung on the public reaction to the hacking of the mobile phone of murdered British schoolgirl Milly Dowler, in a display of insensitivity that contravened any community standard. Prior to that – despite the illegality of the behaviour – the public was largely disengaged with complaints over invasion of privacy by the likes of Hugh Grant, whose moral posturing on behalf of the Hacked Off group served little more than his own self-interest.
This is not to say that the behaviour of offenders was anything but deplorable; the actions of Mr Murdoch with his apology to the Dowler family and his closure of the News of the World is testimony to that.
However, it is at this point that the plot was well and truly lost. The problem lies in the fact that what was the province of the criminal jurisdiction was judged to be a failure of the selfregulatory system.
The hacking of mobile phones is covered by criminal statutes. The 90-odd prosecutions since the police investigation began were launched under existing statues, not laws introduced as a result of Leveson recommendations. Charges of complicity by executives and managers at the former News International also were laid under existing laws. Even the aggrieved had rights under current legislation for compensation or other redress through the courts.
So why was such a wideranging inquiry necessary, when existing laws had the capacity to punish wrong-doers? The answer is, it wasn’t. While there was merit in Leveson’s brief to inquire into the extent of any improper relationship between members of the press and police, the overly moralistic examination of the culture and ethics of the press at the instigation of the government was a political fix that set the course for the current disaster.
It is important here to remember the political climate. British MPs – and in particular the Labour Party – were deeply concerned over media concentration, with a proposal before a parliamentary committee to allow News Corp to purchase the stock it did not own in BSkyB, as well as the closeness of some News figures to the government.
As Leveson said of the inquiry in his executive summary: “Inclusion of the press and politicians followed not only because of the political consensus from the Government and Opposition parties that politicians had been too close to the press, but also because of concerns about the bid by News Corporation for the remaining shares in BSkyB plc. The operation of the wider regulatory framework in relation to data protection, together with consideration of issues of plurality of ownership and its effect on competition came to be included.”
The problem lies in the fact that what was the province of the criminal jurisdiction was judged to be a failure of the selfregulatory system.’
The irony is that Leveson acknowledges the role of a free press in maintaining a vibrant democracy. He says in his report: “Over 40 years as a barrister and a judge, I have watched the press in action, day after day, in the courts in which I have practised. I have seen how the press have assisted the investigation of crime and seen the way that the public have been informed about the operation of the justice system.
“I know how vital the press is – all of it – as the guardian of the interests of the public, as a critical witness to events, as the standard bearer for those who have no one else to speak up for them. Nothing in the evidence that I have heard or read has changed that. The press, operating properly and in the public interest is one of the true safeguards of our democracy.”
Yet despite those assurances, publishers are now left with a Royal Charter that has been endorsed by the Privy Council and the Queen which no respectable publisher should sign.
‘We shouldn’t have a bar of regulation. I may have been trashed year in and year out by the media but that’s the price you pay’ FORMER AUSTRALIAN FOREIGN MINISTER
Alexander Downer: Page 20
EXIT STAGE LEFT . . . Lord Justice Leveson after delivering a statement following the release of his report