Britain’s press needs more freedom, not more regulation

By Jack Shafer
November 30, 2012

The Leveson inquiry completed its 17-month official investigation into the filth and the fury of the British press today, pulling into the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center opposite Westminster Abbey. There, its leader, Lord Justice (Brian) Leveson, delivered the inquiry’s 1,987-page report on the London newspaper phone-hacking scandals, wild invasions of privacy by the press and covert surveillance by newspapers, and recommended new regulations of the press.

The regime proposed by Leveson would replace the current — and toothless — self-regulation by the Press Complaints Commission with a body that would possess investigatory powers and authority to levy fines of up to £1 million for transgressors. The new body would be “voluntary,” funded by newspaper membership fees, as the 56-page executive summary explains, and “independent” of the press and government, though governed by statute. The advantage of submitting to the invitation to volunteer would be an “arbitration” service that would reduce the legal awards newspapers would have to pay when complainants brought their libel and invasion of privacy charges to the new body rather than to the courts.

Anticipating that some publications — namely the tabloids that routinely hacked phones, harassed people, co-opted the police, and published damaging lies — would refuse to volunteer, the summary recommends that those outliers be conscripted by the government’s broadcast overseer, Ofcom, which would operate as a “backstop regulator.” So there’s nothing voluntary about the regulatory scheme Lord Justice Leveson proposes. It surveys the landscape that is the British press — an institution sufficiently demented that one of its organs, News of the World, hacked dead schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone in pursuit of lewd headlines — and proclaims that all publications, be they guilty or innocent of the numerous offenses catalogued by Leveson, be subject to a new government-mandated order. With that nose under the tent, it wouldn’t be long until the entire camel was calling the place home.

Leveson can’t avoid noting that it was a newspaper — the Guardian — and not a regulatory body, not a police force, not a parliamentary committee, and not an official inquiry trucked in by limousine that exposed the crimes of News of the World and the purported police cover-up in the first place. Without the diligence of Nick Davies and his Guardian colleagues (plus a terrific assist by the New York Times, which advanced the story and kept it alive), the Milly Dowler case and other press outrages would likely have remained buried. That British newspapers and journalists broke laws and breached ethical standards must be paired with the finding that it was a righteous newspaper operating in the same environment at the same time that revealed the wrongdoing. Leveson’s reaction is akin to a judge proposing that all projectiles be regulated by a sub-judicial body because of a spate of window-breakings: If the devils are misbehaving, make sure to bind the angels in barbed wire, too.

For all its long-windedness, the Leveson recommendations aren’t as much about making British journalists do their work legally as they are about making them perform ethically and produce ethical work. The first obstacle to those goals is that a generous portion of British readership appears to prefer sordid news collected on the dodge to meaningful journalism produced ethically and in the public interest. They love the steaming swill the Daily Mail, the Express, and the Sun serve them, and would still be bolting the mash that the Milly-Dowler-violating News of the World conveyed had owner Rupert Murdoch not euthanized it in 2011 before torching the place. For a window on how ridiculous (if entertaining) these papers are, point your browsers to the watchdog site Mail Watch and scan its archives for deconstructions of tabloid lies and grime. The British audience seems to love this stuff, even when they know it’s half-cocked and ginned-up. Even former Brit Tina Brown makes it a part of her daily media diet, telling New York magazine that “for my sheer hit of trash, I’ll go to the Daily Mail Online, which is so great. It’s just got the best human-interest garbage.”

Not to praise the American reading public, but it has never been attracted to the sheer-trash-human-interest-garbage recipe when it comes to daily newspapers, although Rupert Murdoch tried to replicate the British example in San Antonio, Boston and Chicago. His only American tabloid success is the New York Post, which is no success at all, losing an estimated $15 million to $30 million a year. That the excesses of filth and fury thrive in Britain but falter in the United States tells you a lot about how publishers differ, but it tells you more about the difference in readers. (Maybe I overestimate the taste of the U.S. public: Earlier this year, the American audience helped make the Daily Mail‘s Web offshoot the world’s most popular newspaper site. And the Mail is expanding its U.S. operations.) Perhaps the biggest problem in the UK is not unethical publishers and unethical reporters but contemptible readers who sanction criminality and privacy invasion every other time they buy a disreputable copy at the newsstand.

Of course you can’t establish a voluntary, self-regulatory body of readers, funded by them with investigative powers to peer into their own dismal tastes in journalism. But if you could, I’m certain Lord Justice Leveson would take a stab at it. Every block could have a tribunal of its own, and every reader’s reading habit could be judged, and the worst of them fined or put in stocks and pelted with eggs.

In the United States, where the First Amendment prohibits such Levesonesque mischief, there have been efforts to compel ethical behavior and social responsibility from the American press. The private Hutchins Commission, created at the behest of Henry Luce in the early 1940s, entertained the proposal of one well-connected commissioner that a federal agency be established that would regulate the press as the FCC regulated radio. This scheme was “voluntary,” too: Papers that declined the invitation would lose their limited-liability corporate structure The plan went nowhere as the commission found the intrusions worse than the offenses they were designed to deter.

Ethical codes, especially ethical codes for the practice of journalism, are difficult to enshrine in law. And they’ve got to be at least as difficult for a regulator such as Leveson imagines to interpret effectively if the goal is to punish bad actors while not impinging on the good. If every complaint about news coverage deserves a regulatory hearing, where will reporters find time to do stories?

Prime Minister David Cameron dismissed the Leveson proposal today with waffling noises instead of marshaling a defense of a free press. “I’m not convinced at this stage that statute is necessary,” he said, testing the wind, leaving himself room to call for a statute if he needed it for a future campaign. What he should have told the public was, yes, British newspapers have caused great and unnecessary injuries to private citizens, they have pilloried celebrities for being celebrities, they appear to have bribed public officials, they have obstructed justice, and some of their corporate overlords have covered up their crimes and misdemeanors. But you’re the customer. Why do you keep buying this stuff? There are plenty of laws on the books to prosecute the criminal element in the press for their behavior—why don’t we do a better job of using well-defined, well-tested laws rather than create a quasi-court that could easily be turned into a free-press killer?

Then I’d have him invite the British press to make their case for press freedom. Because it’s incumbent upon the British press to explain to its readers why they can’t do their job with a regulator’s thumb poking them in the eye. If they can’t make that case, especially with the example of the United States standing so close, then maybe they don’t deserve a free press.

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PHOTO: Lord Justice Brian Leveson leaves the stage after unveiling his report following an inquiry into media practices at the QE2 Centre in central London November 29, 2012. REUTERS/Dan Kitwood

8 comments

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Somehow I doubt the founders in the US considered soft core porn and gossip about “celebrities” to be what they considered “the press” for First Amendment purposes, but that’s what Rupert Murdoch and his NewsCorp provide.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive

@Boris. If you ban ‘softcore porn’ and ‘gossip’ soon you find that anything the government deems you should not know is classified as ‘gossip’ and within time you will find yourself living in 1984 – the book, not the year. America should be grateful for the wisdom of the founding fathers, because although ‘gossip’ and ‘soft porn’ were not on the radar back then they had deep insight into the the darker side of power and its tendacy to confiscate freedom in the name of practicality or ethics.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

britain needs a market for the press

there seems limited demand, indeed a ‘dumbing down’ across the printed media

we probably get what we want and then (the real puzzle?) do we want what we get?

Posted by ed_martin | Report as abusive

Given that the real problem is the gutter press, which will always break the law, what is really needed is a fast-track system to deal with them, at low cost. If you are being stalked, you can get an injunction as fast as you can say knife to prevent the stalker watching your house every day (but it will cost you). You should be able at low cost to apply to get an order preventing journalists parking outside your house night and day waiting to take a picture of you or anyone else visiting you, for example. Such conduct should be categorically unlawful. This is, of course, just one example. Another example is that you should have “ownership” of your personal telecommunications – you should be able to check that you’re not being hacked. I cannot believe that it’s beyond the wit of the experts to devise such a system, available to all. If you are hacked, oh, happy day, fixed damages of half a million quid. We’d all be hoping we would be hacked. Problem solved.

Posted by CO2-Exhaler | Report as abusive

@Shafer: You’re swimming naked against the tide. Check out the comments on this news article:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20551634

I’ve personally been grossly misrepresented by journalists on at least two separate occasions. One time, the town newspaper (circulation ≈70000) printed a “quotation” from “me” that I never said at all (it was totally made up by some other kids at school working on the same project who wanted to make fun of me when I was not present — fortunately this “quotation” was in good taste) — my point is that while the journalist knew this comment wasn’t verifiable and hadn’t been said by me, it was still printed as though it had been! It’s easy for me to see how this could go wrong, and why people are tired of dodgy journalism that sensationalizes everything (especially the negative).

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Anyone should be able to print, distribute and sell any material they want, about any subject they want, with any content they want, period. Morality should be the responsibility of individuals, families and community (churches, voluntary associations, etc.), not law makers and regulators.

Who gets to write the rules that define “ethical behavior and social responsibility” and on what basis? At what point does the term “free press” need to be changed to “preordained press”?

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive

@LysanderTucker: THERE IS NO LAW that deals with any subject EXCEPT morality! Hence, unless you are advocating an anarchy; law makers and regulators had better roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, dealing with the real issues.
Murdoch’s newspapers, whose culture was generally under his control and leadership, hacked into the voice-mail of missing school-girl Millie Dowler (labelling the messages as having been listened to); thus misdirecting parents and police resources at the very time she might have been in process of being killed.
Again, Murdoch’s newspapers have printed false materials that so damaged people’s reputations that they committed suicide.
This has been going on for years. How much more blood does their have to be on his hands, and how much more filthy money in his coffers, before you admit that it’s time to do something about it?
http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/ bl/bl_aesop_trumpeter_prisoner.htm

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

What utter rubbish, the sun, the express and the mail all have circulation in freefall.

British newspapers are notoriously loss making.

It is just that in the UK owning a newspaper is appealing enough to certain rich individuals that they don’t mind the losses. I wonder why that could be?

Anyway, Leveson does not propose to prevent newspapers printing filth and lies, just that they might be held to account should they choose to do so. How does that restrict freedom of the press?

Like a lot of journalists, you are misty eyed about the printed word. You are lost in the past.

Newspapers are finished, get used to it. Even Rupert Murdoch is beginning to realise that.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive