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December 2, 2012

Major UK Press Inquiry Would Scrap First Amendment

By Peter Kellow

The Leveson Inquiry is a public inquiry into the British press following the News International phone hacking scandal , The Inquiry has just published its report Full marks are due to Prime Minister David Cameron who as a politician was able to home in directly on the flaw in Leveson -- the introduction of state control into press affairs. In the USA this would be of course unthinkable due to the First Amendment

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The  Leveson Inquiry  is a judicial  public inquiry  into the  culture , practices and  ethics  of the  British   press  following the  News International phone hacking scandal , chaired by  Lord Justice Leveson , who was appointed in July 2011. A series of public hearings were held throughout 2011 and 2012. The Inquiry has just published its report which reviewed the general culture and ethics of the British media, and made recommendations for a new, independent, body to replace the existing  Press Complaints Commission , which would be recognised by the state through new laws.

The Leveson Report tries to deal head on with the current problems with the press as it sees them. It makes no attempt to stand back from the problems and take a wider view giving more recommendations -- but you could say that that was no part of its remit. The problem with a narrow perspective is that it can produce a bias in the recommendations and as such they may be misguided

On this occasion, full marks are due to Prime Minister David Cameron who as a politician was able to home in directly on the flaw in Leveson -- the introduction of state control into press affairs. In the USA this would be of course unthinkable due to the First Amendment, but in the UK with no written constitution the guardianship of liberty rests entirely in the hands of politicians. To their deep discredit Labour Party leader, Ed Milliband and leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, did not support him. The Guardian reports:

Cameron said he had "serious concerns and misgivings" in principle to any statutory interference in the media. He warned: "It would mean for the first time we have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into law of the land."

But the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, took the opposite view, siding with Leveson in saying that a state-backed body was needed to have oversight of self-regulation by the press.

Mr Miliband ... said Labour "unequivocally" endorsed its conclusions.

Amongst the wider reaction to Cameron's view, Mark Lewis, the lawyer for the parents of Milly Dowler, accused Cameron of betrayal, reminding him he had promised his response would satisfy the victims of phone hacking and intrusion.

But phone hacking is already against the law and so a matter for the police, not a regulator. And journalists camping out outside victims' houses could be dealt with under existing harassment laws. After all, if people did it without cameras and press cards, the police would surely act.

Leveson said it was necessary for a body like Ofcom (ie a government quango) to monitor a revamped PCC to "reassure the public of its independence". The purpose of his proposed legislation is "not to establish a body to regulate the press", he insisted. But he warned that if newspapers were not prepared to join a revamped regulator, despite financial incentives to do so, it would be necessary to force Ofcom to act as a "backstop regulator".

Leveson attempts to make light of this role of government in regulating the press but the fact is that ANY intervention by the government in press reporting is going to be a slippery slope. To create this would indeed be taking an irreversible step exactly as Julius Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon was.

And as many have pointed out this legislation would suffer from the inbuilt fault that it would apply only to the old-fashioned print media. The new social media would remain free to publish whatever they wished.

This is a vital point, for newspapers are able to be an independent voice with due authority and resources that no other media has. That is not to say they always do this but they have proved at times that they can.

No blogger or social media operator would ever have exposed the MP expenses scandal as the Telegraph did and none would have ever been able to truly challenge and expose the criminal activities of the Murdock press as the Guardian did. A world deprived of old-fashioned print media would be world with far fewer teeth to tackle abuses of power.

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Cameron has defended the press in this instance, but his predecessor had no power to prevent a previous serious assault on press freedom in 2008 when Max Mosley, formula one supremo, won a court case against the News of the World on the grounds that it had breached his privacy. The newspaper which had reported his involvement in a dominatrice sex act involving some female prostitutes. The prime minister at that time had no power to act for he could not challenge a judgment by the courts. The prime minister rightly has no remit to interfere in a court's judgments

Incidentally, the European Court of Human Rights took a different view from the UK courts when, in 2009 Mosley brought a case against the UK's privacy laws in the European Court of Human Rights. The case was roundly rejected in 2011, leaving UK law as odds with the rest of Europe

British Justice, David Eady, said at the time of the UK court decision: "The law now affords protection to information in respect of which there is a reasonable expectation of privacy" -

This judgement all hinges around how you define "privacy". Another recent case concerned that of the Duke and Duchess and Cambridge. The Duchess cavorted topless in a garden visible from the public road and then complained for invasion of privacy when a local reported took a series of snaps. 

I would argue that what is made public in fact, should not be able to then be made private under law. In the case of the Duchess she exposed herself in view of a public place. She may have been on private property but that is not the point. If she had stripped off in someone's front garden although on private property, she could not claim her action was done in private. It is exactly the same in the case of the French chateau. She made no reasonable attempt to protect her own privacy and so had no reason to expect the law to do it for her.

The same principle applies in the Mosley case. Mosley hired prostitutes to participate in a sadomasochistic sex party but unfortunately for him this was filmed by one of the prostitutes who then sold the results to the News of the World. Although this event took place behind closed doors, Mosley was careless with protecting his privacy and so surely had no right, any more than the Cambridges, to expect to be able to appeal to the law. The point is he used professionals for his pleasure seeking and if he used ones he could not trust then that is his own fault.

If the Cambridges had been spied on by a camera hidden by an agent of the press in their bedroom that would be an invasion of privacy and unacceptable - not to mention illegal. If Mosley's sexcapade had involved only friends and family and a camera hidden by a press agent had picked it up, that is an entirely different matter. But by using professionals whose only reason for participation is a pecuniary one, he has not sought privacy in the generally accepted meaning of the word.

Also the Prince Harry sex party in Las Vegas was revealed by a prostitute who, as well as collecting her payment for services to the royal, decided to augment this by means of a "hidden camera" -- by which we mean here nothing more than a mobile phone. Harry was correctly advised not to pursue the matter

The judgment on the Mosley case understandably provoked howls of pain from the print media. It truly was a blow to press freedom. Now this has been followed up by Leveson. But Leveson is down to Parliament to enact. The Mosley case was decided by the courts. 

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However, there is clearly something radically wrong with the way the press operates. So what is to be done -- if anything?

There are two parts to the reply. The first concerns the state of the press while the second concerns the state of their customers -- the readers, all of us.

The reason why the press feels able to transgress the law so terribly is down to their overweening power. The same people who hacked phone of murder victims also bribed police offices and hobnobbed with senior politicians who were keen to secure their political support. This problem was and is most acute in the Murdock press which owns several British newspapers. We could address this by preventing by law any one company from owning more than one national newspaper.

This would be a simple way of avoiding a concentration of power and the newspapers would police each other constantly in search of a way of discrediting their competitors by exposing irregular and illegal conduct - as the Guardian did with the Murdock group. This would be the government acting but it would not be at the level of editorial content. All current political leaders are far too afraid of the press to propose this simple measure. We cannot prevent politicians talking to the press and nor should we. But when it is a diverse press there is much less of a problem.

Let's turn to the second thing that needs to be said but that no politician or even newspaper will say. There is a sense in this in which the press are only the messengers -- and as we know you should never shoot the messenger just because you don't like the message. The press print garbage because a lot of people want to read it. They do it to survive in what still a competitive industry. Is this a slur too far on the mighty British public? It might seem so unless we put the whole thing into context.

People have every reason to be worried in the world today because a whole catalogue of problems too familiar to mention, but they all derive from one overriding presence that determines so much about the lives of people today -- injustice. Civic republicanism argues that where there is gross and pervading injustice, virtue is difficult. Of course, people are generally honest and caring, but with the loss of hope and sense of future like that of today it is human nature to seek distractions -- and these can be of a decadent and prurient nature. Enjoyment of these does harm to the subject of the distraction as well as the individual distracted.

The simple truth is people are unhappy. They maintain an exterior cheerfulness but whenever you talk to fellow citizens, well off or not, you quickly come up against this sense of despair and hopelessness in a world where they see graphically portrayed the injustice at every level that they are surrounded by.

I have risked labouring this point because it is necessary to put the character of the contemporary press into context. Certainly they promote and encourage the degradation of, and unreasonable interference in, people's lives, but to be fair we have to see this as part of a wider malaise and the only way to address this is to begin the task of creating a just society in the fullest possible sense of that word. Just hammering the press will serve no good purpose.

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If we lay all faults at the door of the print newspapers we are in grave danger of despoiling a priceless if imperfect asset. Without them we would lose one of the bastions of liberty which no amount of Facebooking or Twittering, or even TV channels like the BBC, will ever replace





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