In the UK, the shortest route to celebrity status for a senior lawyer is to be put in charge of a major public inquiry, and so it has proved for Lord Leveson, who has just published his long-awaited and eagerly anticipated recommendations into UK press regulation.
The Leveson inquiry was precipitated by the phone-hacking scandal that enveloped News International around the middle of 2011, when its leading popular Sunday newspaper News of the World was forced to close amid a pile of evidence that it had systematically tapped the phones of people in the news. The Leveson enquiry was set up by the UK Prime Minister David Cameron to investigate both News International specifically, and the UK print media in general, since some other journals were also implicated in the phone hacking scandal. The enquiry has become almost an obsession with the UK’s politicians, media and chattering classes, and the report could have significant ramifications elsewhere in the world, having already attracted plenty of foreign reaction.
The World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), which campaigns against press restrictions, had already written to the UK’s foreign secretary William Hague, as well as international development secretary Justine Greening, chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, ahead of the Leveson report’s publication. Ronald Koven, the WPFC’s representative, warned that a "chill will go through the world's media — matched by a warm glow in the ministries of some of the most illiberal regimes," if the Leveson report recommends legislation.
It is no wonder that the UK government, and PM Cameron in particular, feel trapped between the proverbial rock and hard place. On the one hand, if they accepted the proposal for legislation, they would stand accused of laying a slippery slope down which the country could slide towards government control of the media, the so called “East Germany syndrome," referring to that country’s notorious state-run press when it was still part of the communist eastern bloc during the Cold War.
On the other hand, by resisting this particular part of the Leveson report, which Cameron has actually done, the government has run into a hail of opprobrium from the victims of phone hacking, who were quick to accuse him of lacking the guts to follow through the process that he himself had set in motion.
The point here is that the UK print media has until now been subject to self regulation by the independent Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which has lost credibility because of its failure to deal with the phone hacking scandal, or unpick the three-way corrupt web of connections linking politicians, journalists and the police that ensured the practice went undetected or certainly unpunished for so long.
Leveson recommends replacing the PCC with a new body that has more teeth, but still crucially independent of the government. However, given that this is in effect just replacing one independent body with another, Leveson argued it had to be underpinned with legislation that would allow for government intervention if this new regulator appeared not to be doing its job properly. This would have been anathema to the print media itself, and would certainly send out those wrong messages that the WPFC was worried about.
But, here comes an interesting bit in that Leveson recommended that Ofcom, which already regulates the UK’s telecommunications operators and broadcasters, should also become the regulator of last resort for the print media. It would presumably sit between the new regulator and the government, and will be taking this role even though the government is not now legislating for statutory underpinning of the process. Ofcom then stands to become more powerful, and this has not been welcomed by UK newspapers.
But, Ofcom’s involvement serves to highlight the omission of both broadcasting and Internet media from Leveson’s remit, which appeared a more serious oversight in the light of recent events embroiling the BBC. First, there was the affair of Jimmy Saville, who had been a popular BBC presenter for almost half a century until his death just over a year ago, but has since been found to have exploited his position to engage in serial sex offenses throughout that period. This was quickly followed by the Newsnight saga, when that program alleged that a senior member of the conservative party had also been a sex offender, and the information led to the party’s former treasurer Lord McAlpine being identified on Twitter. So, this last case implicated both a major broadcaster, and the ubiquitous medium of Twitter, as sources of libelous accusations.
Of course, while the BBC was guilty of a total lapse not just in fundamental ethics but also basic journalistic competence in not checking its facts, Twitter itself was blameless. But the case has highlighted the need to impose some constraints or regulations on social media, given its ability to transmit gossip and innuendo like wildfire. Although the BBC was guilty of instigating the false rumors that led to the naming of McAlpine, who is in fact totally innocent of the charges, the false identification would almost certainly not have happened without the Twitter effect. It also incidentally served as a warning for people who until now have tended to regarded tweeting as a semi-private exercise, rather than just another form of publication that should be subject to the same laws of privacy, defamation and libel as any other medium, although of course with the complication that it has essentially global reach, save where it is actively censored. At any rate, in the heat of the moment, some prominent people joined in the Twitter stampede triggered by the BBC’s false accusations, and now face libel action from McAlpine, among them Sally Bercow, wife of the speaker of the House of Commons.
Meanwhile, Leveson himself was forced to defend the omission of the BBC from the scope of his inquiry, which indeed is strange given the convergence between broadcasting and print publication. After all, the BBC publishes virtually all its news in text form on its website, while newspapers have online versions incorporating increasing amounts of video. Indeed, the impact of the Leveson inquiry will fall on broadcasting as well as Internet news distribution, as it will change the whole legal media landscape. Certainly, it is causing some concern at the EBU, which has campaigned tirelessly for public service broadcasters to be totally independent of state interference. Post Leveson, the tentacles of the state will be extending much closer to the levers of influence at broadcasters such as the BBC.
As it happens, it was only just before the Leveson report came out that the EBU issued editorial principles for public service media in time for its winter general assembly. Many of its broadcasting members had wanted the EBU to take a lead on ethical principles and professional values similar to the UK’s proposed new print regulator. In effect, the EBU here will be acting as self regulator for European broadcasters, and one that commands great respect across the continent. So, why not extend the EBU’s remit to cover print media and create a pan European cross media regulator that would sidestep the concerns expressed in the UK and elsewhere over government interference post Elverson? Perhaps, all the sparring parties in the UK could line up behind that.