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Muhammad Abdul Bari Headshot

Press Freedom is Vital... But So Are 'Our' Rights

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Lord Leveson has delivered a damning verdict on the state of Britain's 'Fourth Estate', its hitherto powerful newspaper business. In his report An Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press, the newspapers and their proprietors have been found guilty of "wreaking havoc in the lives of innocent people". Self-regulation has failed, amounting to "the industry marking its own homework". The press has "treated the rights of ordinary people with disdain".

Sadly, the governing coalition, headed by Prime Minister David Cameron, has already rejected the idea of regulation, saying there are "serious concerns" over new laws to underpin such a move. "We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and the free press," Cameron said even before the report had launched. This despite the fact that the Labour Party unilaterally supported all of Lord Leveson's mammoth recommendations and even his deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, disagreed with his coalition partner's conclusions.

Yet pressure was piling up on Lord Leveson even before he published his findings. On 28 November more than 80 MPs and peers, including some well-known figures, urged him not to recommend a press regulation law. But that did not deter Leveson: he rejected a proposal from the press itself to enforce standards through contracts, saying he could not see how it could be independent.

One thing is clear: there is universal acceptance that the status quo cannot be maintained.

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Let's get some things clear. What Leveson is not arguing for, nor have I seen seriously suggested, is some sort of Soviet-style, repression of the free press. That is the line frequently trumpeted by some newspaper editors to justify their continued self-regulated status.

Leveson has argued instead for a a new independent press watchdog, underpinned by legislation. He has insisted that such a measure does not amount to state control of the press. Reaction has generally been positive (except from Cameron and the newspapers themselves), particularly from victims of phone hacking - which got us into Leveson in the first place - and those who have suffered from media intrusion and abuses of power, such as the Dowler and McCann families.

Opposition to independent regulation is based on the fear that it will erode long-fought for press freedoms. But as we have clearly seen, that does not work. Editors have ignored the Press Complaints Commission (PCC, the existing self-regulatory body) when it suited them and one proprietor (Richard Desmond, owner of The Express and Channel 5 TV station) even withdrew from it completely! So reliance on self regulation, without any regulatory teeth, has not worked and is not going to work in the future. There is a balance to be struck here: between freedom of the press and responsibility towards the individuals whose lives can be affected by their actions. How does a democratic society maintain that balance between rights and responsibilities?

Phone hacking

The phone hacking scandal appeared to be a battle between two powerful forces in our society: journalists who needed 'news' and celebrities, crime victims, or powerful people who were their targets. The phone hacking scandal was exposed by the media itself (The Guardian newspaper in particular) and the fight against the abuse of media power was led by prominent people in our society. But we still need a better mechanism than expensive libel laws to defend ordinary people who do not have the money and power to challenge the abuse. Some have said that with hacking criminal law was broken - as it was - but the police did very little to pursue complaints, something acknowledged by Leveson too.

This is where the need for some new kind of law comes in. "It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important", said Martin Luther King, Jr. It is unfortunate our media industry and the Prime Minister himself have been so swift to reject the idea of a press watchdog. There is room for common ground; Lord Leveson's proposal is balanced and with good implementation all in the society will benefit.

In the heat of this big debate one issue seems to have been missed, and that is the way sections of our media, particularly the tabloid press, have dealt with women as well as well as certain communities and minority groups in our society. On the broad issue of gender equality he found that "the tabloid press often failed to show consistent respect for the dignity and equality of women and there is a tendency to sexualise and demean women". Under the report section titled 'Ethnic minorities, immigrants and asylum seekers', Leveson presented a grim view of how Muslims have been deliberately targeted by elements of the press. The Muslim community has been banging its head on the door of our politicians for some time over this issue - either ignorant reporting or, in many cases, blatant Islamophobia and fear-mongering - but the response so far has been very lacklustre.

The Daily Star newspaper, for example, printed an untrue article about taxpayer's money being used for "Muslim only loos [toilets]" in one city; it also claimed, falsely, that Remembrance Day poppies would be banned from sale in Muslim-majority areas. Meanwhile The Sun claimed there was a Muslim plot to kill British Jews on the basis of "extremist posting" fabricated by an "anti-terror expert".

When a small minority of powerful journalists demonises a people it creates a suspicion surrounding that community. In the aftermath of the July 7th 2005 (7/7) atrocities in London this is exactly what happened to the Muslim community. The situation has become so toxic that many young Muslims feel very disheartened and cynical, like "conditional Britons" and part of a suspect community. This situation was highlighted by some very fair-minded journalists, like Peter Oborne ('The shameful Islamophobia at the heart of Britain's press') but has not been taken up elsewhere.

It is vital therefore that the recommendations from Lord Leveson are taken up. There is great tradition of journalism within this country, and many fine journalists - as Leveson himself acknowledged - and press freedom won over 300 years of struggle should not be lost. Nor will it be, if we sensibly and responsibly protect the weaker and more vulnerable members of our society from the uncontrolled actions of a few powerful media barons and their editors, who have tarnished the rest of their fine profession with their irresponsible actions. They have shown contempt for the laws and the people, and thus regulation must be backed by law.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.