Talking to the BBC earlier this week, Hugh Grant expressed his fear that recommendations to change the way the media acts in society would fall upon deaf ears once the results of the on going Leveson Inquiry were released.
Set up to assess the ethical, practical and cultural factors of the media in today's society, the Leveson Inquiry has been closely followed by those that argue the media has overstepped it's boundary and become too powerful. Given that the media has long enjoyed the freedom to act as they please Grant is perhaps right to voice his fears. Showing a typically cautious response to controversial issues, Cameron has publically recognized the failures of the media sector but has been careful to remain ambivalent as to how far he would be willing to go to prevent the media abusing information available to them.
On the other hand, Grant and other critics of Cameron are arguably missing the point when debating how Cameron will act when faced with the results of the inquiry. Whether Cameron listens to the results and recommendations is of secondary importance at this very point in time. Any policies implemented will inevitably be a re hash of former policy in an attempt to appease a number of interested actors; a fact that political journalists should have realized at this point.
What is interesting and perhaps more important to come out of the inquiry is potential answers the inquiry will provide to questions surrounding what can be regarded as the public realm and the private, what information is allowed to be used and what isn't, what causes harm and what is infringement on an individuals right to privacy? Answers to these questions will have far more lasting an affect on the media culture and how society responds to the media than any direct policy by one specific person.
Since the early 19th century questions surrounding the divide between public and private, state and individual, intervention and freedom have influenced ideologies and politicians regarding how the state is structured. Arguably the most influential and recognizable figure regarding these issues was John Stuart Mill. Still very relevant to issues today, Mill argued against excessive state interference on the basis that society could be divided into to very distinct spheres (the private and the public) and that the state could only legitimately interfere in one - namely the public sphere.
For Mill, the public sphere was defined as those areas that affected society as a whole. If an individual's actions resulted in harm being caused to others then Mill would claim that the action should be subject to state interference. On the other hand, if an individual's action affected none but themselves the state could not interfere. For Mill, the individuals right to freedom of speech, press, action and involvement was critical to the well being of society and much of what Mill writes can be seen in the way the state has acted for the last two centuries.
Yet the recent scandals surrounding the media suggest that the division betwen public and private is not as distinct as Mill would like. Cameron himself has stated, "We don't want heavy-handed state intervention. We have got to have a free press. They have got to be free to uncover wrongdoing, to follow the evidence, to do the job in our democracy that they need to do."
In Mill's distinction, every individual has the right to freedom of speech and as such a journalist is doing no wrong in writing an opinion. However, when what is written causes harm, even if it is arguably necessary harm, can the press be regarded as entering the public sphere and therefore subject to state intervention?
Much of what has been discussed throughout the Leveson Inquiry relates to this issue. Were the press right to steal information from unwitting individuals in the search of evidence to back an opinion or a story. Is it freedom of speech, press and action for a journalist to write controversial stories that will inevitably lead to consequences for an institution, an individual or society as a whole? Will state intervention regarding the press infringe on our rights to personal freedom and is this a good or necessary result?
The story of Max Mosley is a good example. Many argued that Mosley's sexual antics were rightly publicized due to the idea that as a powerful man with high influence his actions could cause potential harm to the public. Yet many argued his private life, regardless of how colourful, should remain private and as such the media need to be regulated to prevent such incidents happening again.
What it boils down to is the question regarding what is private and what is public? What does the state control and who decides? In light of these questions, the potential answers the Leveson Inquiry will provide is far more compelling a result than Cameron's response. Hugh Grant, take note.