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A somewhat mediocre report could yet lead to better press rules in Britain
IT IS easy to see why British journalists rank so low in public esteem. An inquiry into media ethics (or lack of them) by Lord Justice Leveson has heard in excruciating detail how tabloid reporters and their sidekicks bullied, stole and cheated with impunity, while their bosses hobnobbed with police officers and politicians. The public is rightly fed up.
The Leveson report, published on November 29th, is a mixture of the mediocre, the clever and the dangerous. Parts of it are a scissors-and-paste job culled from Wikipedia. Too focused on tabloids, the judge showed less interest in serious journalism, even though his rulings will affect all papers. At times, the report seems to imagine that journalists are like doctors, architects or engineers. But the state cannot impose standards on writing as it does on those professions. Every tweeter, blogger and author of a Facebook post is a reporter of sorts. The judge is at his most vague about new technology.
Yet, in some form or other, this muddle will form the foundation of Fleet Street’s new rules (see article). The tabloids are too weak (and too guilty) to fight. With comical swiftness, given the fact that the report is 1,987 pages long, all the main parties rushed to back most of the judge’s suggestions.
Lawmaking at speed is seldom sensible. It seems especially weird to demand rapid action when the alleged tabloid crimes that so annoyed the public—hacking phones, bribing policemen and so on—are already illegal. With many once-mighty journalists now facing prison sentences, behaviour has changed. If the chastened police enforce existing laws on harassment, theft and obstruction, many of the complaints will dry up (along with celebrity-driven demands for a privacy law). In wiser times Parliament would wait before it acted. Yet despite these inauspicious circumstances, there is a chance that the new regime will be better than the old one.
Lord Justice Leveson’s core suggestion is to replace the toothless, industry-led Press Complaints Commission with a new “Board”. This would still be an independent body, but with more outsiders and the ability to impose tougher fines (up to £1m), and backed by some kind of “verifying” body to check every two or three years that it is doing a good job. Newspapers would have an incentive to join, because the Board would become a first stop for defamation cases. This is the clever bit, because England’s libel laws are exceptionally lousy—a lawyers’ racket that grossly favours the rich and powerful. Poor claimants cannot afford to take on the tabloids, whereas wealthy crooks and dictators rush to London. The Board would oversee a speedy, simple and cheap tribunal mechanism. A Russian oligarch could still choose to avoid that process or possibly disregard its verdict, but the judge in the civil libel case would have to take notice of that.
State of denial
Could this lead to state regulation? The details of the Board and its procedures will matter, but the obvious Trojan horse is the verifier. Lord Justice Leveson suggested Ofcom, the state-backed body that oversees (and micromanages) broadcasters: he also wanted the whole set-up to be backed by statute. The Liberal Democrats and Labour, in their haste to be on the side of public opinion and wanting to put themselves as close to Hugh Grant and as far away from Rupert Murdoch as possible, backed this rapidly. To his credit, David Cameron did not.
That is based on a mixture of pragmatism and principle. It looks increasingly possible to set up the libel tribunal without introducing new laws. And you do not have to turn to the state so directly for the verifier. The best option would be a completely independent, self-perpetuating trust (similar to the ones that appoint the editors of The Economist and the Guardian). It would be entirely separate from government and Fleet Street—with, say, only one trustee out of five being a former journalist, and the others former judges and worthies. The next-best verifier is probably the Supreme Court.
The principle? One job of the press is to keep an eye on politicians, so politicians should keep as great a distance between themselves and the media as possible. Anger is justified. But Britons should see how the new arrangements work, and how the police enforce the existing laws, before going further.