British media need a tighter leash, recommends Leveson Inquiry

Hacked off
Hacked off
Image: AP Images / Matt Dunham
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A British inquiry into the repeated bad behavior of the UK press called for tougher independent self-regulation backed by legislation, and an arbitration system by which victims of the press can seek redress without going to court. The announcement followed a 16-month investigation into how the British news business should be reined in, following the widespread phone-hacking scandal last year. Lord Justice of Appeal Brian Leveson, head of the so-called Leveson Inquiry, said in a press briefing today:

The press has to be accountable to the public in whose interests it claims to be acting and must show respect for the rights of others.

I know of no organization, profession, industry or trade in which the serious failings of the few are overlooked or ignored because of the good done by the many.

He added that if that were the case, the press would be the very first to expose such practices. While many editors were terrified that Leveson would propose a government regulatory authority with legal powers to replace the current self-regulatory model, he didn’t go that far. Instead, he said that press freedom should not be jeopardized, and that no one interviewed by his panel had suggested that government or politicians be involved in regulating the press.

In order to protect the integrity of the press, such as when it comes to guarding sources, he said that the press needs a new independent self-regulatory body independent of both media and parliament, but backed by legislation, and with the power to impose fines. The statutory underpinning would formally recognize the self-regulating body, and validate a standards code. This media must organize this self-regulating body themselves, he said.

Overall, the press dodged a bullet—indeed signing up to the regulatory body is voluntary.

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party tweeted:

Some journalists took issue with a somewhat unclear suggestion in the full report (pdf) that off-the-record conversations should be “open.” British journalist Neville Thurlbeck tweeted:

Prime Minister David Cameron ordered the judicial probe amid the phone-hacking scandal last year, which ultimately led to the demise of the New of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and to the arrests of key figures including New International editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson. The pair have both been charged with criminal offenses over alleged illegal payments to public officials, and appeared in court today. Ultimately, Murdoch withdrew a bid to buy the remaining chunk of the BSkyB satellite television business News Corp doesn’t already own.

For 16 months, the inquiry panel interviewed celebrities like actor Hugh Grant, whose own phone was hacked, leading he and others to launch the news media clean-up campaign Hacked Off. It also heard from politicians, journalists, police, and members of the general public to get their views on press regulation.

The scandal drew international condemnation after an investigator from the tabloid News of the World was accused of hacking into the phone messages of a murdered schoolgirl. Messages were allegedly deleted by a reporter after listening to them, to make room for more messages, which misled police and her family into thinking the girl was still alive.

The industry is currently self-regulated, but a body to handle press complaints announced earlier this year that it will close. This followed accusations of ineptitude.