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.”