The press in Britain will come in for a pasting this week when Brian Leveson, a lordly judge with a deceptively genial style, delivers his much-anticipated report on the scandalous behavior of some of the country’s newspapers. The report, to be published on November 29th, will also trigger a bitter professional and political struggle over the future of self-regulation.
This debate will not only shape the future regulatory landscape for journalism in Britain, it will also have an impact in many other countries which have adopted the British model for setting ethical standards in the press.
The report from Lord Leveson comes after months of investigation, producing thousands of pages and inspiring millions of words about how the press works. His inquiry was launched after a phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World, leading to the paper’s closure by its proprietor, the global media magnate Rupert Murdoch.
The fall-out from the scandals has already made headlines around the world with stories of bribery, corruption involving top politicians and the prosecution of senior executives at the company.
The only certainty about the report at this stage is that it will make lacerating criticism of certain sections of the notorious tabloid press. The “dark arts” of tabloid reporting were revealed in some painfully revealing cross-examination by Leveson’s legal team during televised hearings.
In recent weeks the temperature has been rising as the press industry has closed ranks to try to head off what they fear will be a call from Leveson for some form of statutory control of the newspaper industry.
There have been complaints that he is targeting media after he sent a letter to editors asking for their thoughts on what his conclusions might be. He scared them with a few thoughts of his own, suggesting that some form of legal underpinning for future press regulation might be inevitable.
The national newspaper industry has launched a public counter-attack including an advertising campaign with dark warnings that any legal framework for regulating press ethics will be a threat to press freedom.
The newspapers have also up with a plan of their own — to relaunch the discredited Press Complaints Commission with increased powers based upon signed contracts with newspaper companies.
They promise that this body – which will have the right to investigate complaints even where newspapers refuse to co-operate – will also be able to impose hefty fines.
This pledge to strengthen the voluntary system takes the press in Britain into uncharted territory and will require the unanimous commitment from owners and editors to demonstrate that they are serious about cleaning up the industry.
Unfortunately, many press critics are deeply unimpressed. They say that similar promises in the past have come to nothing. Even within the traditional political establishment, there are doubts that promises on the part of the press are worth the paper they are written on.
A recent letter to The Guardian from the distinguished heads of some of Britain’s leading journalism schools called for independent regulation and more than 40 leading Conservative Party lawmakers, including the likes of Lord Norman Fowler, a former minister in the government of Margaret Thatcher and a steadfast press supporter in the past, have warned Prime Minister David Cameron that he will have to act if Lord Leveson proposes that the law should be brought into play to restrain unruly sections of the press.
Beyond Britain, media watchers will be following the reaction to Leveson closely. Press councils from Bosnia to Sri Lanka have followed the British model and if the entirely voluntary system of press regulation is abandoned in London, others are likely to follow.
The Ethical Journalism Network will also be tapping into the debate. Our panel of professional experts from Britain and elsewhere will have their say and the issue will also be up for discussion at a meeting of the EJN to be held in Brussels on December 10th.