Following the News of the World phone hacking scandal exposed in July 2011, Lord Justice Leveson was commissioned the task of heading a judicial public inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press.
Published on November 29, 2012, the inquiry report titled, ‘The most public and the most concentrated look at the press that Britain has seen’ (according to Leveson) has been received with mixed responses, exposing hidden political agendas.
Recognising the failure of the current Press Complaints Commission (PCC), described by Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband, as a ‘toothless poodle,’ Mr Leveson’s report recommends the establishment of an effective, genuinely independent self-regulatory system.
The proposed system aims to ensure that an independent body is established with a clear standards code, able to adjudicate any breach in standards committed by the press.
As a means of regulation, this body would hold the authority to demand public apologies and impose fines on those who violate the code.
In order to avoid the creation of another inefficient PCC, Leveson has proposed that the new independent body be underpinned by legislation that would incentivise the press to sign up to the system.
Held against 300 years of freedom of the press in the UK, the word ‘legislation’ seems a foreign and offensive suggestion.
Despite Leveson’s deliberate, repeated stipulation that the Report “is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press,” Prime Minister David Cameron made his objections known in a statement delivered to the House of Commons.
The statement was unsurprisingly supported by a majority of Britain’s leading newspapers.
Both Labour Party and Liberal Democrats (along with a great portion of Britain’s population) do not share Cameron’s sentiments, believing that the implementation of legislative changes is essential in a climate fraught with exploitation and mismanagement.
While freedom of the press and public protection should by no means be at odds with one another, is legislation the best way to heal this malady?
The Report has set in motion two separate processes.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has begun to draft legislation in response to Leveson’s recommendations, while the press industry has been urged in no uncertain terms to produce an outline of their own tough, self-regulatory body that meets all requirements of the Leveson report—bar the legal stipulations—as soon as possible.
Addressing Parliament on December 2, Culture Secretary Maria Miller said, “The status quo is not an option; we will see change. That change can either come with the support of the press, nor, if we are given no option, without it. Be in no doubt, if the industry does not respond, the government will.”
Can the ‘toothless poodle’ assume watchdog status, performing its duties effectively and independently without state intervention?
Liberal Democrats Leader Nick Clegg has emphatically stated that changing the law is the only way to ensure that the regulatory body remains (indefinitely) independent and accountable, but is this the role of the State?
This is a surprising and pressing question for Britain in the 21st Century.
Probing a little deeper reveals that this question is not simply one of press freedom versus state-secured public protection, but an issue that carries significant political weight, as hinted earlier.
Already drafting their own bill, the Labour Party has laid down an ultimatum for Mr Cameron, stating that if he does not take initiative in implementing Leveson’s legislative suggestions, they will rally for a vote in the House of Common in January, the likes of which could spell his political demise, but boost his reputation with the press of course.
Liberal Democrats’ analogous position and the current public sentiment in favour of a new press law (100 000 signatures deep), create a complex socio-political situation.
The above was sent to us by Maxim Institute, Auckland