Leveson: Good diagnosis, wrong prescription

Dean Wright, former Standards Editor of Reuters and an editorial adviser for the EJN, gives his verdict on the conclusions of the detailed investigation into the ethics of the British press.

LevesonThe long-awaited report by Lord Leveson into the unethical and illegal behavior by some of the British press does a good job of diagnosing the problem, but the prescription is dangerous.

The report rightly concludes that “there has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories,” with little or no regard for the damage such journalism has caused; a “reckless disregard for accuracy” at the now defunct News of the World; and an uncomfortably cozy relationship between the tabloid press and the police. As for the hacking of phones and illegal access to medical records, Lord Leveson writes:  “The evidence drives me to conclude that this was far more than a covert, secret activity, known to nobody save one or two practitioners of the ‘dark arts’.”

However, the remedy proposed–an independent, self-regulating body created under a new press law–is a dangerous and unnecessary step. Such a law would open the door to more forceful government regulation of the press by future governments that may not like what’s being reported.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller put it well: “What we’re concerned about is creating amendable legislation that could in the future give parliament the opportunity of stopping reporting on certain areas.”

I’m writing from the United States, where the Constitution’s First Amendment enshrines freedom of the press–and in the past two centuries we’ve had lots of reprehensible journalism. Yet we’ve also often had  journalism that has gone a long way toward saving the republic. It  wouldn’t have happened with a government-regulated press. Infringing on the vigorous independence of the British press, which has often spoken truth to power, is a dangerous precedent for the country that gave us the Magna Carta.

And it’s not necessary. There are laws against information theft, phone hacking and bribery of public officials. It’s time for the police to vigorously enforce those laws against news organizations that violate them. And it’s time for the British media to create a truly independent watchdog. Perhaps the threat of legislation will spur them on.

It’s also disturbing to see the distinctions the Leveson report drew between the “press” and the “Internet.” While detailing the appalling ethical lapses of the print media, Lord Leveson speaks of the “ethical vacuum” of the Internet. Venal and unethical men and women operate in print media, just as they do in broadcast and digital media. So do honest, idealistic and ethical men and women. Ethical behavior is not determined by  the medium in which a journalist operates.


Photo credit: Gwydion M Williams 2012_06_270013 Leveson lack of memory (CC BY 2.0)