LORD Justice Leveson met his deadline yesterday, issuing the findings of his eight month inquiry into the “culture, practices, and ethics” of the press. It came as no surprise that he concluded the state has a role to play in overseeing newspapers.
Leveson decided that a statutory body, much like Ofcom, should take responsibility for monitoring the press. To see why this cannot work, we need to take a glance at Ireland, where a regulatory system enshrined by statute already exists in the form of the Press Council and Ombudsman. Technically, the ombudsman is professor John Horgan, but practically, the responsibility lies with Ireland’s justice minister Alan Shatter. This raises some serious concerns: Shatter has signalled his intention to bring in more formal privacy legislation.
Irish newspapers – broadsheets in particular – are more conservative than their British counterparts and rarely challenge the status quo. On those few occasions when Irish newspapers go out on a limb, the government is eager to step-in, threatening draconian new privacy laws. But what purpose does regulation serve if new laws are to be threatened at every step? Given the differences between the British and Irish press – even between editions of the same newspapers – it is hard to see how adopting Ireland’s system of regulation would contribute to a free press. It either simply wouldn’t work, or it would act to stop the press from digging for stories that could harm the great and the good.
And it is hardly the case that regulation will stop newspapers from ever making mistakes. On Wednesday, X-Factor star Louis Walsh won a €500,000 (£404,000) settlement after taking the Irish Sun to the courts in a defamation action.
Regulation is just another obstacle between journalists and the truth. Journalists should be judged by the law of the land; they don’t need special treatment one way or the other. And Leveson’s proposals, which include the power to investigate serious or systemic breaches of a new press code, go well beyond those of Ireland’s press ombudsman.
The practices that Leveson was installed to inquire into, such as phone hacking, are matters of criminal law, not press etiquette. And let’s not forget, these actions were exposed by a newspaper. Leveson’s regime would have done nothing to stop the most recent journalism scandal – the libelling of Lord McAlpine, including by prominent journalists, on Twitter.
Most paid-for British newspapers are struggling in a time where people increasingly turn to other sources, including free print or digital. Creating a special regime makes no sense in an era where anyone and everyone can be a journalist, blogger, publisher. Leveson’s proposed regime applies only to newspapers, news magazines (although The Spectator has already announced it will refuse to comply), and their online and mobile editions. What it will not, and cannot, apply to is the wider world of blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts.
Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Ireland. He spoke on press freedom at the Battle of Ideas festival in October, partnered by City A.M.