Leveson Report: Is Press Freedom the U.K. Hacking Scandal’s Next Victim?

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Matt Dunham / AP

Lord Justice Brian Leveson holds a summary of his report while posing for photographers before its release at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London on Nov. 29, 2012

The roots of the drama that closed a newspaper, toppled a top government official, launched multiple investigations and has seen 15 suspects charged with crimes ranging from conspiracy to unlawfully intercept communications to misconduct in public office lie in shoddy journalism and poor politics. And the hotly anticipated Nov. 29 publication of Lord Justice Brian Leveson’s report into Britain’s hacking scandal provided ample fresh opportunities for shoddy journalism and poor politics. Titled An Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press, Leveson’s 1,987-page, densely written document attempts to distill 11 months of hearings involving some 650 testimonies and costing close to $9 million into a coherent set of observations and recommendations for more effectively regulating the British print media. In the bad old days, representatives of that media would probably have managed to filch copies ahead of publication or obtained them from officials they had in their pockets. But in the Leveson era, editors are keen to burnish their credentials as responsible, law-abiding citizens. Thus a broad coalition, encompassing high-minded broadsheets and tabloid red tops, rushed to condemn the report sight unseen before embarking on the tortuous job of actually reading the thing.

Over in Westminster, Prime Minister David Cameron got his copies 24 hours in advance, in sufficient quantities that his advisers could trawl through the rich thickets of verbiage and help him prepare the statement he delivered to Parliament less than two hours after the report became public. That extra time proved insufficient, however, for Cameron to reach an agreement with the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on the government’s response to the report. Thus another broad coalition, the governing coalition encompassing Cameron’s Conservative Party and Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, delivered contradictory messages.

The heart of the disagreement relates to Leveson’s core proposal: that the U.K.’s ineffectual Press Complaints Commission should be replaced by a self-regulatory body governed by an independent board, its members appointed without interference from politicians or the media. He writes:

What is required is independent self-regulation. By far the best solution to press standards would be a body, established and organized by the industry, which would provide genuinely independent and effective regulation of its members and would be durable. If such a body were to be established and were to command the support of all key players in the market, there would be no need for further intervention, although I believe that there would remain a need for some further support in relation to ensuring that independence and providing incentives for membership.

The sticking point for many opponents is Leveson’s conclusion that if not all media organizations agree to participate in the system (and one large organization opted out of the current voluntary arrangements), Parliament must legislate for a “statutory backstop.” The queasiness is understandable. Westminster lost its power to license newspapers in the 17th century; British press freedoms nourished a vibrant, irreverent, questing media culture that has sustained democracy and challenged vested interests. “We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and the free press. I have some serious concerns and misgivings about this recommendation,” Cameron told the House of Commons. “For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon, writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land. We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation which has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.”

This signaled an increasingly rare moment of agreement with his irrepressible Conservative colleague Boris Johnson. “It is one of the glories of this country that we have a free, exuberant and sometimes feral media,” said the London mayor cum prolific newspaper columnist in a statement published in Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid the Sun. “They keep public life far cleaner than many other places in the world.”

Well, yes and no. Amid the sound and fury, it was easy to forget the human suffering that led to Leveson’s appointment. The discovery of alleged hacking by the Sun’s stablemate, News of the World, of voicemails left for murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler precipitated the closure of News of the World and the establishment of the Leveson inquiry. As long as the targets of press intrusions were assumed to be the privileged classes — bed-hopping politicians, oversexed celebrities — nobody minded too much what hacks got up to. Milly’s case changed everything. Her parents hope Leveson’s efforts “will lead to some proper independent regulation of the press, by the press but by other people as well, not by the government,” their solicitor told the BBC. “To ensure that things, that this, what happened to them, doesn’t happen again.”

Somewhere along the line, elements of the British press ceased to be the guardians of public probity and instead became part of the problem, practicing darks arts including hacking and blagging (extracting confidential material like hospital records under false pretenses) and splashing cash for information. Politicians and police, far from stopping the rot, became too cozy with news organizations and their avatars. (Who can forget that Cameron apparently signed text messages to Rebekah Brooks, then head of Murdoch’s London newspaper business, “LOL,” assuming, she told the Leveson inquiry, the acronym stood for “lots of love” and not, as it does, “laugh out loud”?)

The question Leveson has earnestly tried to address is how to curb those behaviors and clean up the culture without curbing the investigative vigor of the press. Some critics point out that if existing laws had been better enforced, the hacking scandal could have been avoided or curtailed. (The second part of Leveson’s inquiry, not due to start until after some of the legal processes have concluded, will examine why police failed to pursue alleged wrongdoing at news organizations with more tenacity.) Some critics proclaim his mission impossible — and dangerous. There is disquiet among conservatives in the media and in politics who discern in Leveson’s proposals the revenge of the left. “The culmination of the Leveson inquiry this week must be seen as the latest battle in a long-running cultural and political war that began when Mrs. Thatcher took office and allied herself with Mr. Murdoch to smash socialism in this country,” wrote the Daily Telegraph’s deputy editor Benedict Brogan. “The left hopes Lord Justice Leveson will give it the wherewithal to smash the Tories back by neutering their supporters in the center-right press.” Leveson has also put the wind up campaigners for free speech. Ronald Koven, a representative of the World Press Freedom Committee, warned in a letter to Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague that statutory regulation would send “a chill … through the world’s media — matched by a warm glow in the ministries of some of the most illiberal regimes.”

Leveson’s report — and a declaration here: like most of my colleagues in the U.K. media, I have yet to read it in anything like its entirety — includes some recommendations that will reinforce fears about what happens when people who don’t practice journalism seek to tell journalists how to go about their business. Muddled phrasing about discontinuing “off-the-record briefings” has led to a debate about whether Leveson seeks a ban on journalists talking privately to officials. But on the biggest issue, and biggest risk, of creating new legislation, Leveson is clear in insisting that such legislation must contain protections against political interference. One obvious flaw in that plan is that it’s up to politicians to decide, in Leveson’s words, “who guards the guardians.” The hacking scandal revealed an unholy alliance between the press and politicians. Leveson may have inadvertently forged some new ones.