The Leveson Inquiry has been probing possible wrongdoing at News Corporation for five months now, and both Rupert Murdoch and his son James are testifying again this week. When the inquiry began last fall, investigative reporter Nick Davies—whose work for The Guardian was instrumental in uncovering the phone-hacking story—testified that the scandal had forced him to change his previous views about self-regulation. He argued that the failings of the PCC in this case revealed the shortcomings of the entire system. “I do not trust this industry to regulate itself,” said Davies. “I love reporting, I want it to be free. We’re kidding ourselves if we think it would work.”
When asked about Davies’ comments, the PCC’s Scandinavian counterparts’ responses were pragmatic. Jytte Scharling, who is both the president of the Danish press council Pressenaevnet and a Supreme Court judge, pointed out that, in Denmark, such intrusions of privacy would never be handled by the council; rather, that kind of matter would go straight to the courts and stay there. The chairman of the Finnish council, Risto Uimonen, wrote a blog post in which he took issue with critics of the PCC and the self-regulatory system. By those critics’ same logic, Uimonen asked, should we declare the legal system a failure because, despite its existence, crimes continue to be committed?
His council secretary agreed. “Phone hacking is a crime, and there is no way an organization like ours could prevent it,” Porra wrote in an e-mail. “It is our job to keep both the journalists and the public informed about good practices, but if journalists want to commit crimes, I guess it would be difficult to prevent it with any kind of regulation.”
Porra conceded that every system of regulation has its weaknesses, but argued that voluntary self-regulation was preferable to the alternative, especially with the challenges the news industry is facing today. Whether the alternative would be a lack of regulation or a state-run regulator, she believed self-regulation is the best kind of system. She wrote, “There are all kinds of challenges right now in the media business, and it’s essential that the council is aware of their possible effects on ethics—and takes stances, when needed.”
It took a few months and several meetings of the Norwegian Press Complaints Commission, but all of the many complaints about press coverage of the July 22nd massacre have now been addressed. The council found that Dagbladet had not breached the journalistic code of ethics with its frequent coverage of Anders Behring Breivik on its front page, as the universal news value of the story merited that frequency. Likewise, the council decided that Verdens Gang did not breach the code by printing photographs of Breivik’s reenactment of his crimes, noting that the paper showed sensitivity to survivors by placing the most disturbing photos on its inside pages, rather than its front cover. The newspapers that printed the photograph of the complainant’s wife who was killed in the Oslo city bombing, however, were found to have shown a lack of restraint. At the moment that the editors printed the photograph, they did not know whether or not the woman’s family was aware of her death (even though, as it turned out, they were), and so that was a breach of Norway’s code for ethical journalism.
As Breivik’s trial began last week, journalists in Norway must have had these and other similar complaints in mind as they determined how to cover the largest court case in the country’s peacetime history with, both thoroughly and compassionately. One daily tabloid, taking its cue from the U.K.’s Guardian, found a simple but ingenious solution to the problem of over-saturation of the painful story. Showing sensitivity to the survivors of the July 22nd attacks—as well as to any number of traumatized Norwegians who feel they have seen enough of Breivik’s face—Dagbladet was the first to introduce a button offering readers a “Breivik-free” version of the daily news.
Correction (04/25/12): This story initially reported that the Norwegian-language name for the Norwegian Press Complaints Commission is Norsk Presseforbund. In fact, the organization is called Pressens Faglige Utvalg. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.