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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 12/2/12

Major UK Press Inquiry Would Scrap 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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

* * *

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

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