The Press on Leveson inquiry

December 3rd, 2012 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

editorial:

The British tabloid press at its worst has never been a pretty thing to contemplate.

Hyper-competitive, unscrupulous, concerned more to get something that might be tricked up as a “scoop” no matter who got trampled on in the process, its unlovely ways have often been deplored. When British Prime Minister David Cameron appointed a Court of Appeal judge, Lord Justice Leveson, to conduct an inquiry into the operation of newspapers and to suggest how they might be better regulated, it was the seventh inquiry in 70 years to traverse much the same ground. When the inquiry was set up the papers’ reputation could hardly have been lower and nine months of hearings, in which some 337 witnesses were heard and 300 more gave statements, have done nothing to improve it. Despite all that, Leveson’s principal recommendation, for tougher regulation supported by law, is unlikely to be acted upon, and for very good reason.

I think there will be tougher regulation, but I don’t think it will be statutory regulation.

At the end of it all, Leveson found one of the central allegations that had been made – that Cameron had become too cosy with the Murdoch empire and had tailored policy to suit it – was not made out. He further found much of the press excellent. But the judge also found Britain’s system of newspaper self-regulation weak and inadequate and he proposed a new, much stronger one, ostensibly independent and voluntary but in fact coercive, with powers to fine heavily and, most crucially, backed by statute.

In NZ broadcasters can be fined, but not print .

Direct state control over newspapers has not existed in England for more than 300 years. The idea of putting at risk the hard-won freedoms developed over centuries because of the excesses of a few tabloids is rightly regarded as anathema. To his credit, Cameron immediately spotted the dangers and while accepting Leveson’s findings, he has rejected that part of his report. A strong and effective regulatory body is undoubtedly needed, but not one established by the state, no matter how far removed from the immediate grasp of politicians. The practically inevitable risk of further political meddling is too great.

I agree.

New Zealand does not have the tabloid rabble that London does. It is also fortunate in having in the Press Council an effective body to deal with complaints. A few months ago, though, the Law Commission, fretting about alleged problems with the web, proposed a new statutory body to regulate all media. It is not a good idea, nor is it necessary, and with luck it will go no further.

I agree there should not be a statutory body. However I do think the idea of one combined industry self-regulator for print, broadcast and online is sensible and the best way to stop state regulation would be for media to proactively start work towards a combined self-regulator with no gaps as currently exists.

UPDATE: Sean Plunket writes in the Dom Post:

This isn’t to say there is no bias in New Zealand media. There most certainly is at an individual and institutional level. Most often, it is unconscious or unwitting, incredibly hard to positively identify and virtually impossible to eradicate.

To attempt to do so by writing a new set of rules and regulations would be a waste of time. It would hamstring the majority of genuine journalists doing their best to inform their readers/viewers/listeners of the opinions and activities of our politicians.

Impartiality has always, and ever will be, an aspirational goal for the media but kidding ourselves that some code of conduct can ever actually achieve it is a vain hope.

Events in Britain, where media bias is generally accepted, are far more concerning. The issues there are not about how the fourth estate presents the news but how it gathers it. In the case of Rupert Murdoch’s empire it would seem the catch cry was “by any means necessary”.

I’m happy to say that in my 25 plus years in New Zealand media it is not the prevalent attitude here. I don’t know any Kiwi colleague who has bribed, hacked or blackmailed to get a story. The teapot tapes suggest some of us aren’t above a bit of covert surveillance but it is most certainly the exception rather than the rule.

The Leveson inquiry showed us that attitudes were different among a large sector of British media but despite the fact that I find that abhorrent, I think Mr Cameron is doing the right thing.

I have not detected any great enthusiasm for Leveson’s recommendation to have a statutory basis for media regulation.

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15 Responses to “The Press on Leveson inquiry”

  1. andyscrase (89 comments) says:

    Seems remarkable that the Press can patronise the “tabloid rabble” yet no mention is made of the BBC. During the last few weeks we have had the Savile scandal – where the state broadcaster covered up the serial sexual exploration of under age children by BBC employees, we have had the Lord McAlpine scandal which resulted in the Director general of the BBC resigning after 53 days in the job, taking a 1.3 million pound payout for his efforts.

    Furthermore, we have had the “28-gate” scandal, in which the BBC had a secret meeting with 28 so-called “experts” who decided behind closed doors that no balance would be paid in the climate change debate. They spent a six figure sum, with 6 lawyers, to block FOI requests from a retired blogger – Tony Newbery – who made a simple request to ask for these 28 names, who it turned out were not experts at all (after the info was unearthed on the wayback machine), on the whole, but activists and others with a vested interest.

    Then of course, we could talk about the institutional bias on Israel, the EU, etc, yet no mention of this is made in the MSM at all.

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  2. RRM (8,988 comments) says:

    In fairness… I read stuff on the train most morning and I don’t believe many of their “writers” would be capable of bribing, hacking or blackmailing anyone to get a story :-)

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  3. James Stephenson (1,885 comments) says:

    I have not detected any great enthusiasm for Leveson’s recommendation to have a statutory basis for media regulation.

    You missed Ed Miliband’s call for the 2000 pages of the report to be implemented in its entirety, mere minutes after its publication then?

    Labour parties everywhere, it seems, only believe in free speech for people who are saying things they agree with…

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  4. Mark (1,301 comments) says:

    DPF I agree that there should be self regulation but it needs to be seen by the public to have sufficient independence to make their rulings credible and give the public confidence that it will be effective.

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  5. Mary Rose (392 comments) says:

    andyscrase (42) Says:
    December 3rd, 2012 at 9:23 am
    Seems remarkable that the Press can patronise the “tabloid rabble” yet no mention is made of the BBC.

    The clue is the heading: The Press on the Leveson inquiry.
    Which was into newspapers (only). And how newspapers (only) are regulated.
    So not so remarkable they didn’t mention a broadcaster, really.

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  6. andyscrase (89 comments) says:

    The same people wanting regulation on the print media are looking for regulation on the Murdoch empire (Sky TV etc) so I think my point is valid. The BBC is supposed to be an impartial state broadcaster and is anything but. (impartial)

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  7. Mary Rose (392 comments) says:

    >The same people wanting regulation on the print media are looking for regulation on the Murdoch empire (Sky TV etc)

    I think you may be confusing a question of ownership (how big a stake Murdoch has in broadcasting when he already owns a big chunk of the press) with regulation of standards of content, etc.
    The UK already has a broadcasting standards body, covering the BBC and all other channels.
    Whether you think it does its job or not is another matter!

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  8. andyscrase (89 comments) says:

    Well the BBC trust clearly doesn’t do its job, as seen in the 28gate affair and others.

    As far as I am concerned, the print media is a dying industry anyway. Most if not all newspapers are suffering from declining readership and reduced ad take

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  9. ChardonnayGuy (1,023 comments) says:

    To be perfectly frank, the British tabloids- especially the Murdoch segment of it- have always struck me as Augean stable territory. I commend the Leveson Inquiry for its diligence and thoroughness. Mind you, I would exempt Truth from this criticism. As one might expect, Cam’s off to an excellent start and I hope he can revive the fortunes of what had become a toxic brand by the time of its earlier demise. Thank goodness the Fairfax papers dominate New Zealand print journalism, not withstanding tiresome sock con drones like Michael Lhaws and Karl du Fresne.

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  10. AG (1,727 comments) says:

    Three comments on this:

    First, why exactly is it interesting that the Press (a print publication) thinks that statutory regulation of print publications is not a good idea? Isn’t that just as compelling as the fact that the Teachers Union opposes National Standards … what else would you expect them to say?

    Second, Sean Plunket’s comments on press bias don’t relate to Leveson’s inquiry at all – they relate to Claire Robinson’s claim that the photos used by the print media during the 2011 campaign favoured Key over Goff. Nowhere does Leveson say that there should be new controls on press “bias”, and I don’t know of anyone here in NZ who is arguing for that either.

    Third, when you say “I have not detected any great enthusiasm for Leveson’s recommendation to have a statutory basis for media regulation”, you are, of course, excepting the actual victims of media hacking in the UK. Because why should victims be listened to in a situation like this? Or the over 120,000 people who have signed the “Hacked Off” petition calling for Leveson’s recommendations to be implemented in full. Or the 79% of the public who support a new regulatory body backed by statute (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/nov/27/leveson-inquiry-press-watchdog-law).

    So perhaps you mean “I have not detected any great enthusiasm for Leveson’s recommendation to have a statutory basis for media regulation AMONGST THE NEWSPAPER EDITORIALS I HAVE READ.” Which is, again, about as surprising as saying “I haven’t met many teachers that think assessing their individual competence and adjusting their pay accordingly is a good idea”.

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  11. kowtow (6,690 comments) says:

    chardongayballs

    Karl du Fresne is an excellent writer.

    The problem with the UK press was they broke the law. They should be charged with breaking those laws. No need for more regulation.

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  12. xy (130 comments) says:

    Meanwhile:

    Brownlee: ‘The Press is the enemy’

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  13. lastmanstanding (1,154 comments) says:

    IMHO there should be an truly independent Press Council made up of citizens who have no direct connection with any Press and who submit their CVs to a panel of 3 retired High Court Judges. The panel could be say 5 citizens appointed for a 3 year term They could both accept and act on complaints and also initate complaints as they see fit. They could have access to lawyers and others to advise them where necessary.

    The point is that in the UK the vast majority of citizens have lost all faith in the Press be it newspapers the BBC et al. All are seen as poisoned and in need of rehibilitation.

    Until such a body is established the citizens will continue to view the Press as having no credibility.

    We are lucky in NZ that we havent reached this point but we need to be vigilant to ensure we dont. Our press are marginal at best.

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  14. Tom Jackson (2,235 comments) says:

    We don’t really have these problems in NZ.

    In Britain, the press are free to ruin the lives of ordinary people, and they do. If the law won’t protect people from feral journalists, they will just have to protect themselves. No jury would convict.

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  15. ChardonnayGuy (1,023 comments) says:

    Karl du Fresne should really admit he’s not so “ex” Catholic after all. It gets bloody irritating reading his pontifications on behalf of the bully pulpit. If it oinks like a pig and tastes like bacon, then it is probably porcine.

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