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Huw L. Hopkins

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Après Leveson: How Will the Rest of the World React to changes in British Press Regulation?

Posted: 03/02/2013 23:00

Two weeks after the Sun published naked photos of Prince Harry from a private party in a locked hotel room, calling it "vital" in the defence of Britain's free press, the same newspaper lambasted French, Italian and Irish publications for printing a long-lens invasion of Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge's privacy.

This double standard of what behaviour is expected from a 'free press', not just in Britain, but throughout the world, throws up the question; how is the inquiry seen by the rest of the world, and will it affect the way foreign media outlets are regulated?

Would the rest of the world care?
Despite Britain's diminished stature as a world leader since the rise of the United States, China and Germany, it is still heavily respected, furthermore, the joining of many countries in to one political and economic system, such as the European Union (EU), is forcing countries to change the way they view particular national laws.

In 2005, Karen Murphy, a pub landlord was struggling to pay the increasing amount Sky were charging to air football games in public houses. She was paying £700 a month and instead bought a subscription to the Greek satellite broadcaster, NOVA for £800 a year. This breached UK copyright law, which stated Sky Sports were the only licensed UK broadcasters of the Premier League. In 2010 she took the matter all the way to the European Court of Justice who ruled in her favour.

The current 'will-they, won't-they' over Britain remaining economically tied to the EU throws up too many 'what-ifs', but Shami Chakrabati, of Liberty, was reported saying the recommendations could breach the Human Rights Act. If Leveson's proposals are accepted in Britain, the Human Rights issue could be flagged up, higher up the chain of the European Convention, and cause further distress for British governments. Chakrabati later clarified addressing the misunderstanding referring to a moment at Leveson's press conference, when he delivered the report.

It is highly unlikely any other European countries would change the way their own press is regulated to match post-Leveson Britain. The recent history of Europe has impacted hugely on attitudes toward freedom. Countries previously engulfed by Nazi and Soviet occupation are wary of censorship in any form. These days, Germany is in the Top 20 of the Press Freedom Index and moving up, as is the Czech Republic, a country that stipulated quite clearly that the press has to remain free from censorship going forward.

Foreign media concerns
Days before Lord Justice Leveson announced his recommendations, the Guardian reported how some foreign media were concerned about the effect Leveson might have in other countries. The World Press Freedom Committee signed a letter to William Hague, saying press legislation would send an appalling message to some of the world's "most illiberal regimes." Dictators often criticised by Western political elites, might use Leveson's statutory regulated British press law, no matter how limited, to claim carte blanche in silencing those who criticise them in their own countries.

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However, campaigners like Hacked Off feel they have to insist muzzling the press is not something they are trying to achieve; they merely want to fix the problem of the behaviour of the mass media. The national press in Britain has been peddling misunderstandings of exactly what Leveson has recommended. There has been an abstract failure to report the success stories behind some of the world's better-regulated sectors like broadcasting in Britain.

The potential spread of statutory underpinning
The change in law is more likely to affect members of the British Commonwealth. When William Hague took office as foreign secretary, he saw the necessity for the UK having a much bigger "global reach and influence." In the autumn of 2012, he signed an agreement with Canada to assist in foreign affairs and even share embassies.

Following the delivery of his report, Leveson lectured at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Reports suggest support for the change in British press law; "[Leveson] criticised the relationship between the press and the politicians, saying it had been too close"; "The British Press... currently regulates itself through the Press Complaints Commission, a body staffed by editors. Its critics say it is toothless". Australia has recently undergone its own media regulation inquiry into whether or not to develop a public interest test in reference to media ownership and, in a separate review, give the Press another chance at self-regulation. With a decision being delayed again and again, it may be that Australia is waiting to see how Britain plays its hand.

Deep-rooted attitudes toward the press
Should the government move forward with Leveson's recommendations in their entirety, it will make headlines globally but is unlikely to affect change in foreign views on legislation. If Australia follows Britain's lead, it may lead to a few others reassessing their own situation, but only when a scenario develops that is as morally void and hideously illegal as journalists phishing for information and phone hacking. The people of Britain were outraged at the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone; the same situation may not always provoke the same response on a national scale in a foreign country. Sovereign attitudes toward the press and a countries individual culture are inextricably linked, and a decision to change the law in Britain must be made with the focus of the British people in mind.

If a country is itching to change the law but does not, forms of censorship can become much less savoury than legislation, often resulting in the death of a journalist. These countries do not have an issue with the press; they have an issue with their leadership.

Huw L. Hopkins' essay is taken from After Leveson: The Future of the British Press by John Mair. Published by Arima, February 2013.

 
 
 

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