Unless you have been living under a rock for more than a year, you already know there is war raging in Britain. A war that has only words for weapons but shakes the very foundations of society: The Leveson War. This burning issue (sometimes also referred to as the Leveson Inquiry), deals with the frontier between freedom of speech and right to privacy. On one side, the printed Press, fighting for its freedom and independence from the government. On the other side, victims of privacy breeches and politicians, arguing for a statutory regulation of the press. In the middle of the battlefield : Lord Leveson, soon expected to issue a decisive report on the question, and Prime Minister David Cameron, who will have to decide what to do with that hot potato. With drama, celebrities, secrets and maneuvering, The Leveson inquiry is undoubtedly the running story of the year. The Report that is due to come out the end of the month will give a view on whether the press should continue to be self regulated of be supervised by statutory regulation. As the final battle is about to take place, it seems necessary to examine what is really at stake in this conflict.
The trigger incident of the whole scandal happened in July 2011 when it was revealed that journalists from News of The World and other newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International group, had been hacking the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. Interfering with very high profile child murder case, the journalists crossed the line of conduct and caused public outcry. “The phone hacking scandal”, as it is now called, touched the very heart of a nation because journalists not only intruded on a murder investigation but also hacked the phones of dead soldiers’ relatives and of victims of the 7/7 bombings in London. And to rub salt in the wound, the News of the World journalists are also accused of police bribery. The newspaper was shut down but the main question remained: How far should the press be allowed to go for a scoop?
Culture and Ethics of the British Media
From this initial problem emerged the Leveson inquiry itself, which, through a series of interviews, would look at the “Culture and Ethics of the British Media”. Encouragingly, this wording suggested there actually was an ethical code driving British journalism. Maybe News of the World just did not get the memo. This idea that the press is already is defended by advocators of self-regulation of the press like Lord Hunt, chairman of the Press Complaints Committee, who deplored on Sunday that “Because of criminal activities on the part of one national publisher, everyone, including the local and regional press, is threatened with statutory regulation.” In other words, it would be like punishing the whole class for the failings of one pupil. Newspapers across the country also tend to advocate their self-regulation and to back Lord Hunt’s proposal of a new regulatory body. He says it would defend “good journalism” and the “public interest”, while staying independent from the State. The Times is in favour of such a measure, and has warned that a “Leveson Act” would “give Westminster a mechanism for legal control over the press”. The Daily Mail, expressing the same opinion in a slightly different way, denounced Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and Max Mosley (advocates of a statutory regulation) as “the three harpies from Hell”.
Dogs and lampposts
But the war is not only declared between press and celebrities: the Leveson Inquiry has indeed revived the old rivalry between journalists and politicians. Jeremy Paxman once compared the relationship between journalists and politicians to that between a dog and a lamppost. An image that is both poetic and significant in this context. The press indeed plays an important part in the necessary system of checks and balances, which means the relationship between journalists and politicians should not become too friendly. Another memo that did not reach its addressee it seems. David Cameron, already under pressure from those on both sides of the argument, has been accused of being too close to former chief executive of News of the World Rebekah Brooks. A series of ambiguous texts and emails were revealed during the inquiry, Mrs Brooks notably sending the PM a text reading “will love ‘working together’”. Lord Oakeshott, a Liberal Democrat Peer declared “these exchanges show an unhealthy close relationship between
Rebekah Brooks and David Cameron.” A faux pas that not only makes the inquiry more entertaining but also questions the ability of the State to regulate the press. Politicians are often in contact with journalists and could be caught in a conflict of interests, becoming both judge and party. In his decision to keep self regulation or to initiate statutory regulation of the press, the Prime Minister will face pressure from both sides of course, but will also be thinking about what angry journalists could do to his dreams of reelection in 2015.
My freedom ends where your freedom begins
Another core question of the inquiry is how far the freedom of the press is supposed to go. For Lord Hunt, freedom is a privilege that comes with responsibilities “not to bully, not to harass, not to intrude gratuitously.” But after such obvious breeches of privacy by News of the World journalists, the public’s confidence in the press has been shaken. In a context of scandal for the BBC, who covered up a sex scandal involving Jimmy Savile and wrongly accused a Tory Peer of being a pedophile, the British media as a whole is facing an all-time low in the public opinion. Whatever the outcome of the inquiry and the choice the government makes regarding regulation of the press, journalists will have to regain the public’s trust. Finally, the role of the internet, secondary in this inquiry, may become the next bone of contention in the information war.