Finally, after 18 months since the whole mess kicked off at the News of the World, Lord Leveson has reported on the culture and practices of the press.
And it makes me uncomfortable.
The vast majority in the media, particularly on regional and local newspapers, never broke the law for stories. But Leveson struggles to make the distinction when he condemns “the press” as overwhelmingly out of control. There were victims of the press, but the vast majority of journalists, particularly beyond London, had nothing to do with that.
Before the report came out, a colleague said, “I’m so tired of defending what I do for a living!” We may now have to defend it to politicians who are set to write what we do into law.
Leveson wants independent regulation of the press, with legislation to underpin that. He insists this is not statutory regulation of the press, but instead a law defining the freedom of the press. Some commentators have said this amounts to something like the US Constitution’s 1st Amendment about freedom of speech.
An act of parliament would not be like the 1st Amendment, however – that amendment is immovable. An act of parliament, as prime minister David Cameron said in his statement to the House of Commons on Thursday, could be changed by a future politician. He said it was a “Rubicon” we should not cross.
Victims of the those few reporters who hacked phones or pushed the boundaries of ethics argue that without legislation, the press will simply continue to do what it’s always done.
Some have also argued that those in the press who follow the rules and behave ethically have nothing to worry about from regulation. Amusingly, that sounds quite similar to what an ex News of the World hack said when giving evidence to Leveson, that, “The only people who need privacy are people doing bad things”. So then the only people to fear regulation are those doing “bad things”?
Murder is already illegal, but we don’t regulate free individuals to prevent them killing. That incentive against crime is, theoretically, already there. It is the individual that chooses (or in rash moments acts without thinking) to kill.
Almost all the bad practices put on display during the inquiry are already illegal, and court cases in 2013 will determine if anyone is guilty of taking such actions. Regulating the press inherently means providing an additional deterrent to choice, and a prior restraint on publication.
It is designed to prevent you walking down the street to go kill someone by dictating whether you can walk in the first place.
The biggest problem with Leveson is a failure to recognise that the definition of “reporter”, “journalism” and “press” has changed.
The Press – the term used to define the media overall – obviously refers to the printing press. But more media never requires a piece of paper or a drop of ink. The print media is still powerful in the UK, but it will continue to weaken and we will gradually see more experiments in news, particularly on local levels, as in the US.
Some argue that Twitter is now journalism, and certainly you could act as a reporter entirely in a social media sphere. If a newspaper is required to register with a legally supported press commission, what does that mean for other media? If you run a news website, for example, or a blog, or simply use Twitter to report on local news events, are you free from regulation?
If you don’t sign up, how will you be punished?
Will official bodies such as government and the police only engage with those who are registered?
I firmly believe that the world needs both trained and professional reporters, as well as “citizen journalists”. Whether we like it or not, the world of journalism is now open to everyone. Anyone can report on news and events – even if it is more frequently commentary than reportage. And that means regulating the print media is akin to requiring everyone with a musket to sign up with the local magistrate: it is dated in a century that has since passed from memory.
As David Cameron said, much of the Leveson report on robust regulation is fine. . .but it doesn’t need a law to underpin it.
I am concerned about letting politicians define a body where there is no recognition of the world in which we now live. If I break the law as a reporter, I will face justice. If I am unethical, I will have to justify that to the public, and to myself.
That there was a failure on both law and ethics in British journalism says less about the failure of “the system” to detect and prosecute, and more about individual moral codes and a public appetite for letting the press get away with anything in the name of entertainment.
For all the criticism of the press and calls for “proper journalism”, we all still want the entertainment, the gossip about our celebrities and politicians, the judgements about their latest candid snaps. That has not diminished. No legislation can end its online spread. Laws cannot limit the nastiness across swathes of old media, and social media. It can only hope to offer justice after the fact, and hope that maturity and plurality of voices will prevail.
The public was happy to receive their “bread and circuses” from the News of the World every Sunday for decades. Regulation of the Romans wouldn’t have prevented them throwing people to the lions when that wasn’t illegal in the first place. And crossing the Rubicon to legislate on the print press won’t work either, when so many of us can and will be thrown to the lions online.