The British media after Leveson

Editors say more regulation could cripple the UK press

If public outcry against alleged phone hacking sparked the Leveson Inquiry, the government-led investigation into ethics in the British press, citizen interest waned over the eight months of evidence gathering. By Tuesday, when that process closed, the conversation had shifted to become dominated by journalists and editors speaking out in defense of freedom of the press.

The inquiry will now compile a set of non-binding recommendations for the future of the British press, which some fear may include the creation of a statute-backed press regulator.

“It is a massive step to throw out the history of a free press,” said Gavin Millar, who represents the Telegraph Media Group, in his closing remarks to the inquiry. “Any form of statutory intervention in the process of regulating the newspapers is unacceptable to us.”

Roger Alton, an executive editor of the Times of London, a Murdoch-owned broadsheet, agreed, telling CJR, “Statutory control would be an absolute disaster.” Alton said the inquiry was a “way too lavish” response to the accusations of phone-hacking in Murdoch-owned newspapers.

“The British press is fantastic at shining a light on corruption as well as being entertaining,” he said. “What we now have to do is make sure newspapers keep their freedom.”

On Tuesday, Lord Justice Leveson closed the evidence-gathering phase of the Inquiry with a promise to deliver his report “as soon as I reasonably can.” After hearing 650 witnesses and collecting 6000 pages of evidence, the hard work is about to start behind closed doors.

At its heart, the Leveson Inquiry was a response to public outcry at the phone-hacking scandal that rocked Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. That scandal was not an isolated event, but it was a game-changer. It followed Murdoch’s attempt to monopolize the British airways with a BSkyB takeover and much controversy of the injunctions and super-injunctions celebrities were pursuing in the courts to try and stop journalists from reporting on their private lives.

“The press is on trial here, and not simply in this room but also out there in the court of public opinion,” said David Sherborne, the barrister who represented victims of phone-hacking, including the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and the family of disappeared toddler Madeleine McCann, in his closing remarks on Tuesday. Sherborne believes legal recourse is necessary, and called for the creation of a statute-backed independent press regulator separate from the Press Complaints Commission that exists in the UK.

The UK already has a much broader definition of privacy than the US, where freedom of the press is enshrined in the first amendment. At the center of US law is a broad definition of “public people,” which protects journalists reporting on anyone in the public eye. In the UK, public people can protect themselves from the press with injunctions, which prevent coverage of a story, and super-injunctions, which prevent coverage of the injunction protecting a story.

Whether the Leveson Inquiry will seek to extend the laws governing the UK press remains to be seen. In the eyes of many British editors, more restrictive measures at this problematic time for newspapers could spell disaster.

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Hazel Sheffield is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @hazelsheffield. Tags: , ,