Britain’s Battle Over Press Ethics Will Have Global Impact


Megan Trace - News (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Aidan White

The  brief truce in the political and media war over future regulation of the British press in the wake of the report of Lord Justice Leveson is officially over. A few days ago campaigners for press reform, representing many victims of tabloid intrusion, published their own version of a draft law to implement ‘in full’ the Leveson proposals to strengthen press standards.

The announcement is the opening shot in a fierce struggle to determine whether or not any law can be drafted that will help eradicate tawdry journalism without interfering with cherished notions of press freedom.

The impact of this confrontation will be felt well beyond the borders of Britain. Media-watchers around the world, both inside and outside government, are closely following the debate for clues on the how best to regulate journalism and media in the digital age.

It’s a pressing issue as media convergence and the decline of traditional forms of journalism raise urgent questions about management of an increasingly open and chaotic information landscape.

Although it is a daunting 2,000 pages, the Leveson report, which was commissioned after the phone-hacking scandal and the closure of the News of the World in 2011, is a rich survey of the current state of the British press as well as a damning indictment of shoddy journalism.

It contains much angry testimony and passionate condemnation of how the press ‘wreaked havoc with innocent peoples’ lives’ but it is also laced with vision and analysis of the wider information crisis. It reveals the pressure on ethical values as media struggle to find new market models. Above all, it underlines the paramount importance of ethical journalism in a democratic society.

Not much publicity has been given to it, but some of the report’s most trenchant criticism comes not over phone-hacking, door-stepping celebrities or intrusion into the private lives of stricken families, but over the way some sections of the press are actively engaged in feeding hatred and prejudice.

Leveson condemns “careless or reckless reporting” and concludes that regular discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced coverage of ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers amounts to press hostility and xenophobia. In particular, he highlights how some sections of the press portray Muslims in a negative light and questions whether such articles “are appropriate in a mature democracy…”

He also accuses newspapers of manufacturing stories to suit their anti-migrant political agenda. A story in The Sun headlined “Swan Bake,” for instance, alleged that gangs of Eastern European asylum seekers were killing and eating swans in London. Unidentified people were cited as witnesses. But the story had no basis and The Sun was unable to defend itself against complaints.

In another example, a Daily Star article headlined “Asylum seekers eat our donkeys” told of the disappearance of nine donkeys from a park in London. In a piece of total speculation the article went on to claim that donkey meat was “a speciality in Somalia and Eastern Europe” and that there were “large numbers of Somali asylum-seekers” with some Albanians living nearby. The article concluded that asylum seekers had eaten the donkeys.

This sort of misreporting, which is “reckless as to truth or accuracy,” is designed to ensure that the articles support the political views of newspapers.

As part of his strategy to combat such ethical atrocities Leveson suggests that a “conscience clause,” as recommended by the National Union of Journalists, should be included in journalists’ employment contracts. Such a clause will give reporters and editors the right to refuse any assignment or order from editorial executives that requires them to act unethically. Most editors have already said they will introduce this reform.

But it is the controversy over how to establish a new press regulator that dominates the headlines, even though Leveson is not proposing a statutory press law or any measure that might provide any palpable threat to free speech or journalism.

His key recommendations are:

Firstly, that Britain’s free press should be recognised in law. The report says it should be unlawful for any government or state agency to engage in any action that would endanger or compromise the free exercise of journalism. This ground-breaking proposal would provide a solid human-rights base for the evolution of UK media policy in the years to come.

Second, that ethical media should receive judicial favours. If media sign up to an industry-wide process of ethical self-regulation they will be able to avoid exemplary damages and costs if they are prosecuted over their journalism, in cases of defamation or breach of privacy, for instance.

Third, that a new and independent regulator should have legal underpinning. Leveson does not demand statutory regulation of media but instead calls on the press to set up a non-political and independent regulator to replace the defunct Press Complaints Commission. This new body will have industry representatives, but a majority of its members will come from outside the press, and legal underpinning will come from a statutory oversight process which will review appointments and monitor its work.

The report also proposes new rules covering who can make complaints to the press regulator. The recommendation to allow third party complaints would give a voice to some minority groups currently barred from submitting grievances on behalf of others.

None of this, on the face of it, will trouble the global press freedom community which is engaged in highlighting where journalism really is in the cross-hairs, but in Britain’s political and journalism circles some voice a genuine concern that legal monitoring of press regulation opens the door to political pressure on journalism in future. Many others see the recommendations as modest, minimal and urgently needed.

The strategic choices facing lawmakers are beginning to emerge. On the political side the opposition Labour Party, supported by many Liberal politicians from the governing coalition, has come up with its own six pillars of wisdom for a new press law. The Conservative government itself, at first reluctant to adopt a press law, is now suggesting a Royal Charter with legal standing may be the answer.

Within the industry many journalists and journalism schools support a new law, but the hard-core of owners and editors remain steadfastly opposed. They have their own ideas over reform of the Press Complaints Commission and are meeting this month to develop their own tactics for the coming engagement. 

Away from this critical battlefront, where there is much soaring rhetoric and bluster, little attention is being paid to one area where Leveson has disappointed many of his supporters and media critics by his failure to tackle the thorny problem of media ownership.

As Harold Evans, the distinguished former Editor of the Sunday Times laments, the Leveson Report utterly fails to deal with the problem of media monopolies.

Although Leveson was asked to cast an eye over the weak rules governing and controlling the growth of media power, he ignored his terms of reference and says nothing of note even though some argue that this is the root cause of the current crisis.

It is precisely because of feeble controls on media concentration say critics that Rupert Murdoch was able to create his unassailable position in the UK media market from which his company was able to exercise unprecedented influence over government and the state.

But media ownership rules will have to be tackled another day. For now the focus is on whether media are able to take some hard decisions, not just about journalistic practice but on how to change a media culture that has been badly exposed as out of touch with its ethical roots and its mission.

Photo Credit: Megan Trace – News (CC BY-NC 2.0)