Newspapers, unlike broadcasters, have not been regulated by a statutory body since licensing was abolished in 1695. Post-second world war, successive public inquiries have recommended the creation and limited strengthening of the so-called system of “self regulation” to handle complaints from the public and create industry standards. Under self-regulation, publishers of newspapers (and magazines) collectively created a body – now the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) – to adjudicate on behalf of unhappy subjects of press coverage and set an industry code of practice. However, critics say the PCC is weak compared to powerful publishers, and that its activities are limited in scope.
On the 13th July 2011, the Prime Minister, David Cameron announced a two-part inquiry investigating the role of the press and police in the phone-hacking scandal with Lord Justice Leveson being appointed as Chairman of the Inquiry. Part 1 of the Inquiry examined the culture, practices and ethics of the press and, in particular, the relationship of the press with the public, police and politicians, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal at the now-defunct News of the World tabloid.
Leveson was assisted by a panel of six independent assessors with expertise in the key issues that were considered, which included recommendations on the future of press regulation. He opened the hearings on 14th November 2011, saying: “The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this Inquiry, therefore may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?” A wide range of witnesses, including management, police officers, newspaper reporters, victims and politicians of all parties, all gave evidence to the Inquiry under oath and in public.
Broad and complex recommendations were given relating to how the press is regulated. These included:
- Newspapers should continue to be self-regulated – and the government should have no power over what they publish.
- There had to be a new press standards body created by the industry, with a new code of conduct
- That body should be backed by legislation, which would create a means to ensure the regulation was independent and effective
- The arrangement would provide the public with confidence that their complaints would be seriously dealt with – and ensure the press are protected from interference.
Prime Minister David Cameron had reportedly promised to implement the recommendations, and warned the press the “the clock is ticking” for them to introduce a self-regulation system with the tough powers set out by Lord Justice Leveson: “That means million-pound fines, proper investigation of complaints, prominent apologies,” he said. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also claimed to back Leveson, while Labour leader Ed Miliband urged the government to accept the report in its entirety.
The Leveson Inquiry originally included a Part 2 , looking at the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International and other media organisations and how the police investigated allegations. This is due to take place once all legal proceedings are completed, as investigations are ongoing regarding phone/computer hacking and payments made to public officials by journalists. Several journalists and others have been charged under these investigations and are due to stand trial. However, in May 2012, Leveson released a statement questioning the value to be gained from a Part 2, given the “enormous cost”, the fact that material will be years out of date by then, and that it could take longer than the first inquiry.
In my opinion, the Leveson Inquiry was definitely necessary, as the actions of – what must be stressed to be- a small group of journalists (considering the amount in the profession) showed that the standards and regulations regarding what is acceptable when practicing the profession were well in need of a review. I remember at one point there was a discussion of maybe bringing in laws regulating what can and can’t be published by newspapers and remember thinking that that would defeat the whole purpose of free speech. That is one thing the Leveson Inquiry has not really given too much thought to. The idea of free speech. News is slowly moving from the printed document to the Internet, something laws have limited reach to. There is nothing in law that would stop unethical journalism through internet sources, as could be considered to be the case with recent leaked nude photographs of celebrities through iCloud. While this has nothing to do the Leveson Inquiry directly, hackers have invaded private data without being traced and leaked it over the internet, where once leaked, can’t be removed. Who’s to say that newspapers or other media organisations can or don’t get some of their information this way? It is a brave new world we are heading into, and I’m sure it won’t be long before regulating the internet becomes the new topic of discussion among politicians.
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