Addressing the issue and Missing the Opportunity.
The 29th November 2012 will be one of those days when people ask where were you when the Leveson Inquiry outcome was announced.
To give it its full title An Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press. The Inquiry had all the makings of a soap opera what with the great and the famous giving evidence such a Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller and Charlotte church whilst the World’s greatest media mogul, Rupert Murdoch under scrutiny as well as the politicians.Sadly there were those witnesses who were their dint of tragic circumstances such as the Dowler family.
As was apparent from the the evidence to the Inquiry’s findings that the Newspaper world is in poor shape, and has allowed suspect practices to invade its culture. The Inquiry has helped reveal that there is at times an unhealthy relationship between the media, politicians and the Police.
The issue for the Inquiry has to help identify the errors, why they occurred and suggest ways of preventing repetition and allow the public confidence to be restored.
When does genuine investigative journalism become voyeurism and unlawful?Ethically where does one draw the line.
The Press on the whole have been keen to portray Sir Brian Leveson as wanting to introduce political control of the media which is nonsense.
Even reading the Executive Summary let alone the great tome of the Inquiry report itself, Leveson has no intention of state control of the media. Leveson wants the industry to construct its own regulation and sanction, but then given them the teeth to properly enforce any remedy and provide a useful deterrent by enshrining the media’s new rules with statutory clout.
“The legislation would not establish a body to regulate the press:it would be up to the press to come forward with their own body that meets the criteria laid down”
What the legislation would achieve is create for the first time a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press.
Leveson wants the press to create a new self regulatory body, but backed by statutory might.
The Lord Justice Leveson made it clear that he he did not want political involvement or influence and no sooner is the report published then Prime Minister Cameron disses the report saying he would not support the necessary legislative underpinning and plans now to meet with newspaper editors to try and create a scheme that negates the need for state intervention. The irony must be lost on Mr Cameron as what does he regard his actions as doing other than some form of state intervention. It begs the question why Cameron opposes legislation. Lord Justice Leveson did his job without fear or favour; the Prime Minister is at risk of being perceived as doing his job in fear of the next headline or wanting to carry favour with Fleet Street; and in doing so is flying in the face of the Leveson Inquiry’s findings not to mention public opinion.
The Leveson Inquiry has effectively recommended the equivalent of the USA’s First Amendment; a significant first and should give encouragement to good journalism rather than derision.
Leveson is giving the print media the opportunity to set out its own regulation and rules, but to ensure that it does not come across as toothless or just going through the motions, a criticism often thrown at the existing PCC.
The fear amongst editors is that any whiff of Parliament being involved will give rise to further creep by Westminster in curtailing the activities of journalists and the right to free speech. The sentiment is understandable, but the substance to this argument is shallow.
As mentioned Lord Justice Levenson has made clear that legislation be would enacted to protect the freedom of the press. Further many bodies are underpinned by statute, but remain free of the state such as the legal profession and the judiciary. It is ironic that newspapers do not want statutory underpinning to their self regulation, and some such as The Times would like to see the self regulation overseen by a legal panel appointed by the the Lord Chief Justice and such panel to hear appeals arising from complaints. A judicial panel that has its own underpinning and independence enshrined in statute. It does seem the kettle is calling the pot black.
The other fear is that if there was some statutory underpinning that the rules would be prescriptive and rigid unable to take account of the nuance of the hard pressed time challenged news room having to make snap decisions and judgment calls. Interestingly, this flags one of the keys tensions between the law, lawyers and journalist, in fact I would be so bold to say many within the creative industries. Bizarrely the law and lawyers are seen as threat and impediment ( a view disturbingly shared by many politicians). All of them fail to appreciate that the law and justice has flexible walls to accommodate the unusual and changing mores. One only has to look at medical law and ethics to see how nuanced standards of care can exist differentiating between a young doctor in a manic A and E department as compared to a senior consultant luxuriant in his consulting rooms. The law recognises that one hat does not fit all.
The Leveson Inquiry is offering a great opportunity to develop the whole concept of freedom and speech and how to operate it in a fair, open and ethical way. This should give encouragement to those around the World who crave our freedom and serve as a benchmark, instead of a being for a green light to vile despots.
Politicians and journalists are at risk of talking down the currency and value of Leveson and I hope that the editors will embrace it as an opportunity for good .
However, one serious omission of the Leveson Enquiry is the failure to include the Internet and Social Media. If this was the early 20th Century and someone was reviewing transport policy then it would be the equivalent of saying that because many still use horses we will ignore cars and their increasing prevalence.
As has been illustrated in many headline cases the same laws apply to the Internet as it does to the print or TV such as defamation, and clearly illustrated by the Lord McAlpine / BBC debacle. If the same laws apply to the Internet then why not the same ethics and regulation. The Internet is pervasive and the Leveson Inquiry not helping to create gold standards makes it the wild west of culture and civilisation.
As I have expressed in Blue Pencil before, the weaknesses of the domestic law are exposed when trying to sanction someone blogging in another jurisdiction. This is why international standards need to be created and Levenson had an ideal opportunity to have been the vanguard for this cause.
We have international standards (and laws) for many things such as aviation, telecommunications, shipping, post and so forth- why should the Internet be any different.
As we know more and more people use the Internet to access information, entertainment, communIcate with one another. Paper journalism will diminish and surely it cannot be right that what is written on paper is regulated, but when sent electronically could evade ethics and standards.
The United Kingdom is seen as a great bastion of fairness and has a well developed legal system so much so many people seek to have their disputes heard in its courts and tribunals. The Levenson Inquiry could have laid down the gauntlet and started the discussion at an international level as to how do we balance free use of the Internet, and at the same time ensure protection against abuse and provide some ethical code. Admittedly, there are various initiatives looking at this already, but the Leveson Inquiry has captured the worldwide gaze and could be the benchmark to galvanise the initiative. There is talk of a Leveson Two; let’s hope that this is given consideration and the United Kingdom is seen at the forefront of embracing new technology and helping it develop a fair and just backbone.
Today, 3rd December, sees the world’s first registrable Personality and Image Right registry open today in Guernsey pursuant to the grandly entitled The Image Rights (Bailiwick of Guernsey) Ordinance 2012, which allows people to register and protect their image rights such as Mo Farrah’s iconic Mobot gesture. Only a few months ago I spoke with the head of Guernsey’s Intellectual Property Office, and he explained how they intend to develop themselves at being at he forefront of IP protection and registration. With no disrespect to the good folk of Guernsey, but there does seem to be some bitter irony that a small island is embracing a changing world whilst The Leveson Inquiry despite all its theatre, decency, sense of fair play and constructive thoughts has committed one damning omission; it looked back and not forward and as such unless there is to be a follow up we could in a few years time when paper newspapers are a curiosity we are no further forward in having a a free, but also a responsible press. I hope I am wrong.
The Leveson Inquiry
Addressing the issue and Missing the Opportunity.