Press regulation is not the solution to privacy breaches

 
Nick Pickles
THE Leveson Inquiry will make its long-awaited recommendations on Thursday, and the main expectation is that Lord Leveson will propose putting Britain’s press under statutory regulation. But this is a one-way street towards a British media that is afraid to take on the most powerful voices in the land. That is not what civil society should look like.

Yes, revelations of phone hacking, and the acquisition of personal information – from medical records to bank details – have cast a shadow across the media. But this is, and was at the time, illegal. Indeed, one of the few certainties about Lord Leveson’s report is that it will not propose the creation of any new data protection offences. Everything the inquiry has heard is already covered by the Data Protection Act.

Statutory regulation of the press would similarly do nothing to protect privacy. It makes it no more illegal to hack a phone, or to blag or buy personal information. And a new regulator would not make it easier for any of us to seek redress if our personal information is disclosed without our permission.

Furthermore, those in favour of statutory regulation have failed to address an inherent contradiction in their plan. How exactly are they addressing and fixing a culture where politicians court the media by replacing it with one where the media courts politicians?

In any case, in an age of widespread dissemination of information via the internet, the idea of regulating such a small group of organisations is absurd. The press is already competing with information sources that will presumably stay outside any regulatory structure.

The government should welcome Lord Leveson’s report. But it should then make it clear that legislation is not necessary, emphasising that, as Lord Leveson has heard, it is the failings of the police and the information commissioner’s office that warrant concern and further investigation.

And to truly grapple with the problems that led to the Leveson Inquiry being set up, the government should make clear its acceptance that a custodial sentence should be available to judges sentencing anyone who breaches the Data Protection Act. Journalist or not, such a penalty is a far greater deterrent against anyone obtaining personal information illegally than a new body only concerned with the press.

The media must abide by the law, of course. But it must also be fearless in holding power to account. Even a slight diminishing of its undaunted view of power will bring comfort to those who seek to evade and avoid scrutiny. Every citizen would be worse off.

It would be a step that betrays future generations. Ultimately, the best regulator of all is competition and if the government is looking for an alternative to statutory regulation, a return of media ownership laws, taking into account the digital footprint of publications, would offer a much more reasonable way forward.

Nick Pickles is director of Big Brother Watch.