“For the seventh time in less than 70 years, a report has been commissioned by the Government which has dealt with concerns about the press,” British judge Brian Leveson’s long-awaited report begins. It was sparked, he reminds us, “by public revulsion about a single action – the hacking of the mobile phone of a murdered teenager.”
What followed was an investigation into the culture and ethics of the press and its relationship with the police and politicians – a relationship that many determined had become too cozy, particularly in the case of News Corp. As you may remember, the scandal, which led to arrests and even more evidence of hacking by News Corp., ultimately forced the closure of Rupert Murdoch’s 168-year-old News of the World.
What has surprised many is Leveson’s ultimate recommendation – that an independent regulator be formed, with the power to fine media outlets and journalists for ethics violations. Government shouldn’t have oversight, Leveson asserts. Rather, “It would be up to the press to come forward with their own body.”
The idea of a journalistic watchdog has been terrifying to some. If Prime Minister David Cameron, who asked Leveson to prepare the report, follows the recommendation, the UK will head down “a slippery, yet well-trodden slope” that will end up akin to the “landscape of the Soviet Union or China,” writes John Gaper of the Financial Times. Others complained that regardless of the obvious irresponsibility of Murdoch’s reporters, it doesn’t constitute clamping down on the freedom of the press, which should be a self-regulating industry.
But Lord Justice Leveson’s findings are undeniably concerning. Beyond the phone hacking, Leveson reports, “There has been a recklessness in prioritizing sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected.” Leveson cites the reporting around the disappearance of 3-year-old Madeleine McCann from Portugal in May 2007, in which the News of the World singled out the Daily Star for its headline (“Maddie sold by hard up McCanns”) claiming the McCann’s sold their child. Other findings include police receiving lavish restaurant meals and champagne from the media, as well as “a willingness to deploy covert surveillance, blagging and deception in circumstances where it is extremely difficult to see any public interest justification,” noting that News of the World was even prepared to put a surveillance team on the lawyers who were acting on behalf of the phone-hacking victims.
At the Guardian, Zoe Margolis writes that if the press needs some statutory regulation “to make it accountable and protect the weak from the powerful,” it is a great step in the right direction. “’In the public interest,’” she writes, “must never mean ‘of interest to the public.’”
Leveson’s recommendation does maintain that a watchdog organization should place an explicit duty on the government to uphold the freedom of the press. Do you think that a new, self-governing regulatory body would make journalism more ethical – or less free?