Regulating press freedom

2013-11-07 00:00

IT was highly appropriate that a medieval-sounding body, the Privy Council, was used last week to usher in the beginning of the end of press freedom in Britain. The royal charter it granted was described by the Daily Mirror as its “death warrant”.

This is the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press. Nine months of hearings in 2011 and 2012 produced a report of 2 000 pages based on the testimony of over 600 people, half of them in person. It was one of those fashionable televised inquisitions, a highly public purging of the national system that often seemed less an exercise in democracy and transparency than a grandstand for advancing (or rescuing) egos and careers.

Sir Brian Henry Leveson’s report is an urbane, emollient document typical of the British establishment. The press, it concludes, serves Britain well for a “vast majority of time”, although there has been some outrageous behaviour based on a lucrative trade in private information. Press freedom should not be “delivered into the arms of the state” since criminality and immorality have been practised only by “some papers, some of the time”, intones Leveson. Plausibly, he argues for a regulatory system that is fully independent of both government and the media industry.

And indeed Leveson makes some sensible suggestions such as an arbitration system that would circumvent the costly courts in a search for just outcomes for complaints against the press. However, he rejected proposals for a tougher system of self-regulation. Instead, the royal charter paves the way for certification of a regulator. Those publications that opt out of the system face the possibility of exemplary, punitive damages.

There is general agreement that this means the end of 300 years of press freedom and a move towards a less democratic society. There is no doubt that sections of the British press have behaved in an unacceptable manner. The hacking of the phone of the murdered Milly Dowling was a watershed moment. And while the media lamented the beginning of a new era for the press, a sorry crowd of ex News International journalists were attending the Old Bailey charged with illegal interception of communications and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. However, in spite of the reputed scale of the problem and 100 arrests, only a handful of journalists has yet been charged.

This is about politics as much as the media. Ironically, the misdemeanours investigated at such length by Leveson were uncovered by the Guardian and it was the Daily Telegraph that exposed the shocking parliamentary expenses scandal. Now the Guardian is embarrassing the British government with Edward Snowden’s revelations about state snooping. The Daily Mail was correct to describe the aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry as an “establishment stitch up”. There is little public support for press regulation: only 176 000 people have signed the petition in support of Leveson’s findings organised by Hacked Off, a noisy group that includes celebrity figures such as Hugh Grant and J.K. Rowling whose questionable talent has been boosted by the media. As one humorist has put it, celebrities often have an interest in invading their own private space. Shrewd observers of British society have pointed out that its politicians increasingly form a detached class of the privileged who have risen up party ladders and have little in common with the people they represent. A less intrusive press suits the interests of political, economic and social elites.

Press regulation is another unsavoury episode in a modern trend — collective punishment. Instead of tightening the law and applying it effectively, everyone is placed under greater scrutiny and control. This has a salutary effect, instilling unwarranted caution in the creative rather than reining in those who operate on the margins of legality and morality. The interests of the elite are protected against the excesses of a relatively few media operators at the expense of hard-won general freedoms.

And the Leveson Inquiry is not so far from home. We, too, have privileged elites who would like to see state regulation of the media. Our press is Omo white compared with the behaviour of the British tabloids. It makes the occasional error of judgment or jumps to unwarranted conclusions, but, in general, its sin is to do its job just too well by holding increasingly corrupt and venal power to account.

The South African power brokers will be looking with interest at Leveson’s findings and subsequent developments. And the reminder to all democrats is that the rights won over centuries can disappear in a trice.

• letters@witness.co.za

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