This week UK attention will turn back to the phone-hacking scandal as it morphs into a wider discussion about freedom of the press. On Thursday, Lord Justice Brian Leveson will unveil the long-awaited findings of his inquiry into UK media ethics and make his recommendations on how to regulate the industry. It’s expected the report will call for some form of statutory underpinning to press regulation. That has the British media girding for battle and crying foul against its rights. Independent editor Chris Blackhurst in August said Leveson was “loading a gun” against newspapers. Prime Minister David Cameron also has a challenge on his hands as he risks alienating his media allies and/or his own government based on his reaction to the findings. And, he’ll only have 24 hours to fashion a response after getting an early look at the report on Wednesday. Cameron’s press office on Sunday said the PM remained “open-minded.”
It was Cameron who convened the inquiry in July 2011 as the phone-hacking scandal blew wide open at Rupert Murdoch’s News Of The World tabloid. During its run, the probe heard evidence from more than 150 witnesses including Murdoch, Tony Blair, Hugh Grant, J.K. Rowling, the Dowler family and Cameron himself who in June faced uncomfortable questioning about his relationship to former Murdoch lieutenant Rebekah Brooks. He recently told the BBC’s Andrew Marr he would “absolutely” abide by Leveson’s suggestions on regulation as long as they were reasonable. “The status quo is not an option,” he said. Deputy PM Nick Clegg and Labour leader Ed Miliband are expected to back Leveson’s proposals, but some members of Cameron’s own Conservative party are leaning towards non-statutory regulation, including London mayor Boris Johnson. At the same time, there is a group of Conservative MPs who want radical reform, The Guardian has noted.
Should he support statutory regulation, Cameron will risk alienating members of the media who are already unhappy that a light has been shone so brightly on their underbelly by an inquiry that he ordered. In April, Rupert Murdoch told the Leveson Inquiry, “When it comes to regulation, I just beg for some care. A varied press guarantees democracy.” But some papers who have not been accused of wrongdoing are likely to be caught in the crossfire. The Independent’s Blackhurst recently wrote, “I know press regulation needs strengthening and that the public has lost faith in the system. But I’m also aware that only a few journalists have been accused of accessing other people’s voicemails, which prompted [Leveson’s] inquiry, and that all newspapers and journalists are now in danger of being traduced.” On Friday four influential papers, The Independent, The Guardian, The Financial Times and the London Evening Standard, declared: “We will oppose, as a matter of fundamental principle, any system of regulation imposed on our publications by politicians through an Act of Parliament.” Among members of the press dissenting from the mass is former editor-in-chief of The Observer, Will Hutton. He wrote in a column on Sunday, “The precious freedom of speech of an individual is different from the freedom of speech of a media corporation with its capacity to manipulate the opinions of millions, which is why it must take place within the law and within a framework of accountability.”
Ahead of the Leveson report, the UK’s Channel 4 will air documentary Hugh Grant: Taking On The Tabloids. Grant is a fierce supporter of stricter press regulation and the film is said to follow him as he campaigns for tightened rules. Grant was one of the first witnesses called by Leveson. At the time, he urged UK lawmakers to regulate news organizations he said frequently used unethical tactics to violate the privacy of celebrities like himself. There’s “almost no journalism now” in Britain’s tabloid press, he said, adding, “There has been a section of our press that has been allowed to become toxic (using) bullying, intimidation and blackmail… It’s time this country found the courage to stand up to this bullying.” Although it was “a lovely idea” to let news organizations regulate themselves, it “absolutely has been shown not to work,” he contended in referring to the Press Complaints Commission.
That voluntary regulatory watchdog was wound down earlier this year and its chairman Lord Hunt promised to replace it with a “robust, independent regulator with teeth.” Lord Black, chairman of the organization that funds the PCC, recently said statutory regulation could take years to set up, but claimed a new independent regulator could be up and running within six months. Another option would be what’s been characterized as a “tough” contract-based system of self-regulation that would see print and online news providers bound by rolling five-year agreements. The agreements would make them susceptible to “serious sanctions” for wrongdoing.
A debate on Leveson’s findings will be held in Parliament on December 3 and as the national press fear a “wholesale demolition” of their trade, an important factor will be how far Cameron goes to implement the judge’s findings. The ongoing scandal at the BBC has afforded the papers an opportunity to deflect attention elsewhere in recent weeks. But it’s a public organization whose success in news is tied to its carefully-mandated editorial freedom. As even that faces scrutiny, the privately-run newspaper industry can expect a tightened leash.
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