Anticipation is growing among journalists, lawyers and regulators to what Lord Leveson will recommend to revive media ethics within the damaged reputation of the British press. The Leveson Inquiry has been ongoing since July 2011 and the report is due this Thursday.
Last month a panel of journalists delivered their predictions and recommendations during an event held at City University London at the end of October.
Ex-Ofcom executive Stewart Purvis said he believes a "proper independent regulator" is necessary to keep the press in check. Purvis described this as a system funded by media organisations and with rules constructed with the industry to ensure newsrooms are regulated.Purvis, along with the Media Standards Trust, delivered a report to Leveson stating "statutory underpinning" is necessary. This would involve two statutes; one to ensure media organisations have an obligation to join and another which acts as a backstop to oversee the work of this regulator.
The subject of statutory underpinning was in the spotlight just last week, in relation to the backing of the idea by general secretary of the NUJ Michelle Stanistreet. She insisted in an article in Press Gazette at the time that statutory underpinning "is absolutely not the same as state regulation, far from it". She added that this would enable a "framework for a new body to be established with clear terms of reference, and a structure that involves journalists and civil society as key stakeholders." The model is "based on the system in Ireland, where a Press Council was established together with a Press Ombudsman", she also explained.
Other models discussed at the City University London event last month included giving organisations with a certain share in the media market "obligations".
The Coordinating Committee for Media Reform (CCMR) who also submitted proposals to Leveson say organisations who exceed a 15% threshold share in the media market should have "obligations." These obligations include investing in costly demands such as local and investigative news. This not only regulates organisations but helps the journalism industry to grow.
Dr Benedetta Brevini from CCMR said the Leveson Inquiry has already been an achievement: "I've seen much more public engagement and discussion about media ethics and how we should try to make sure the media are exerting proper law in society," she said.
The CCMR are working alongside the NUJ and Avaaz to lobby politicians and hold a meeting on the 29th November in the Houses of Parliament. CCMR are not only seeking effective press regulation but the promotion of having a plurality of voices. According to their website, they wish to achieve this by placing limits on media ownership meaning that no single person can own an excessive share in the media.
How difficult is it to engage the public in media ethics? Brevini says: "It is much easier to get the public connected for issues which involve the NHS or tuition fees than media reforms in general. I've seen this changing in the past year." The public play an integral role by providing the investment for the journalism industry so by default there is a mutual responsibility of both consumers and publications to ensure the human right to privacy is maintained alongside the revelation of truth.
Though "public interest defence" can be disputed, the closure of the News of the World reinforced how it cannot be used to excuse hacking into the phones of celebrities to get stories on their sex lives. However the leaking of documents to the Telelgraph to expose the parliamentary expenses scandal provides information the public need to know and therefore falls under the defence.
City University professor Ivor Gaber says: "Whatever regulatory system you have would recognize that exposing the misuse of public funds was legitimate public interest and I think there would be no problems making that decision." The Director of Public Prosecution's guidelines published in April 2012 to help guide prosecutors in cases involving journalists and the "public defence." It states the disclosure of a criminal offence or miscarriage of justice can serve in the public interest.
There is concern that if the recommendations are too harsh or statutory-based, it is a threat to press freedom and journalists may become afraid to do investigative journalism. Gaber realises the important of press freedom to do their job but suggests regulation will not hinder the press's pluralism. He does this by comparing it to US legislation:"in the United States under the first amendment there is probably more freedom of speech than anywhere else in the world... do they have the most lively exciting interesting press? Not really, it's pretty dull. And if you look for example the US media's coverage of the build up to the Iraq war, how much opposition was there in the US media leading to the Iraq war? Very little." Gaber uses this to show how even when freedom of expression is exercised at its greatest, the media can still end up covering one side of the argument over another.
Head of City University's journalism department George Brock points out a key issue which he says almost no-one during the course of the Leveson inquiry has pointed out: there is a collision of human rights between the right to privacy and freedom of expression. Brock said the "collision of rights can never be definitively settled and balanced." He continues to speak on the weakness of current law: "Law is very inconsistent and weak. If I'm wrong about that that'd be fantastic. It would be great if he (Leveson) would point out that we can do with some strengthening and in some cases the inclusion of public interest defence in laws which tend to affect reporting where in one or two cases they don't exist at all or in some cases are very consistent and weak." Brock says he hopes the Leveson report will strengthens and clarify these laws and right alongside a regulatory system "with teeth".
All the speakers delivered options and recommendations for regulatory systems. It now depends on Leveson to decide whether or not the recommendations are adopted to change the way newsrooms and the journalists within them operate. There is a sure amount of pressure to make sure regulation and legislation are in tune. The freedom of expression, the right to privacy, and public interest all need to co-exist but the limits of each need clarification. Convergence also makes regulating more difficult as there are becoming an increasing number of platforms for writers to deliver news. Brock concludes by saying: "whatever Leveson reports, predicts and recommends, this will not be the last round of the issue because journalism and technology is evolving so fast."
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