How Does the Current System for Regulating the Press Compare with the Recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry?
The press, commonly known as the fourth estate, acts as the guardian of public interest. It is supposed to witness major events and report incidents that nobody else can proclaim. Indeed, it also has the duty to entertain, be opinionated, contemptuous and disruptive if an occasion necessitates it. But not all press acts for the public good. Consequently, the media have in several instances disregarded its own code of ethics and this has severely damaged the life of many innocent individuals. This led to a consensus by many stakeholders that the former “watchdog” Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was unfit to act as a regulator hence the setting up of various watchdogs such as IPSO and the Impress Project to help and bring back public confidence in the media.
The decrease in newspaper influence has prompted the various outlets to “add value” to their stories. The addition of value is in the form of celebrity reporting and controversy hunting. The newspapers are continually under pressure to find exclusive stories. Ergo the newspapers have found themselves facing various accusations of infringement of privacy rights. The most relevant inquiry was the Leveson inquiry set up to investigate the unethical behaviour that had taken root in journalistic circles. Even before the inquiry was set up, there had been a myriad of committees operationalized to investigate press practices. For instance, Operation Motorman—carried out by the Office of Information Commissioner—uncovered the unethical trade of private and confidential information by press outlets. Nevertheless, this discovery did nothing to prompt news outlets to investigate if their journalists had circumvented the privacy laws. The PCC eagerly accepted the industry’s explanation that one reprobate reporter was solely responsible for the unethical practice. Another revelation is in the Operation Weeting, which began in 2011, that probed the issue of phone hacking. In the same year, one of the news outlets disclosed that the phone of a murdered school-going child was also hacked by journalists attached to the News of the World outlet. This incident ignited public disgust and the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, was moved to form the Leveson Inquiry mandated to inquire about the culture of the media in relationship to the police, politicians and amongst each other (Leveson, 2012).
Thus, this essay will attempt to evaluate how the Leveson inquiry recommendations improved, or did not, the press regulating environment. It will start off by examining the background of the Leveson inquiry and go on to list its recommendations. Subsequently, the essay will assess the current regulating environment and discern if the Leveson recommendations have been effective in curbing unethical issues in journalism.
Background of the Leveson Inquiry
In 2011 the Leveson inquiry was formed, with the blessing of the former Prime Minister, to inquire into the responsibility of the press and police in the phone hacking incident. The Prime Minister insisted that the rules governing the press had collapsed and that it was time Parliament took action. The more than sixty years of public outcry and criticism concerning the behaviour of the press plus the phone hacking scandal had climaxed the situation and meant that inaction was no longer an option. The Chairman of the Commission was to be Lord Justice Leveson. He was mandated to investigate the practices and ethics of the media outlets. The inquiry was concluded in November 2012 (Tomlinson, 2014).
The inquiry was split into two parts. Part one focused on the press practices and ethics and specifically the press association with the police, politicians and the public. Lord Leveson, when opening the inquiry, observed that since the media acted as a check on public life any breakdown of the press essentially impacted the whole society. He remarked on the idea of who is supposed to guard the guardians. For Lord Leveson to achieve the commission’s mandate, he invited witnesses who included victims of press privacy infringement, police officers, politicians, journalists and news outlet executives. The second part was scheduled to examine the extent of irregular behaviour reported within News International and more media outlets, plus the manner in which the police conducted their investigations into the accusations. Lord Justice Leveson deemed the second part of the inquiry unnecessary considering the enormous cost of the first phase, time constraints and the relevance of the investigation materials pertinent to the case.
Part one of the inquiry approached the examination of the practices of the media using four modules (BBC News, 2012). These are:
- Module 1: The association between the society and the press and the allegations of phone hacking levelled against the latter.
- Module 2: The relationship between the media and police and if the latter acted in the public interest while investigating the press related matters.
- Module 3: How the press and politicians relate with each other.
- Module 4: Recommendations of how to effectively regulate the press while still maintaining its freedom.
Recommendations of the Inquiry
Lord Justice Leveson made broad recommendations for effective self-regulation that can be summarised into four major points (The National Archives, 2014). These are:
- The industry was required to form a new regulator equipped with a comprehensive code of ethics.
- The new regulator should be entrenched in law so as to maintain the regulator’s independence and ensure its effectiveness.
- The newspapers should continue to self-regulate, and the government should not interfere in the industry in any way whatsoever.
- This new institution should instil public confidence by ensuring all public complaints are dealt with accordingly plus equally protect the press from interference
Nonetheless, two essential questions resulted in a view of Leveson’s recommendations: how the independence and success of the new regulator was to be guaranteed, and how to ensure that all newspaper outlets would unite to form a new independent regulator. The government, in response to these issues, recommended the use of a Royal Charter—considered by the Privy Council—that would document issues of self-regulation, create an independent recognition panel that would be anchored in legislation (Tomlinson, 2014).
Current System of Regulating the Press
The present system of self-regulation of the UK press is characterized by an absence of adequate controls and answerability to the public, coupled with a high level of unpredictability. Since human rights guidelines do not endorse a particular method of print media regulation, then the best bet would be self-regulation on account of being the least restrictive means available. Nevertheless, self-regulation should be consequential; it must wholesomely ensure accountability by the journalists and the print media outlets together with protecting the rights of the journalists. The present setup of self-regulation of the UK press falls short of guaranteeing accountability and responsibility.
One of the biggest developments is the Royal Charter—a legislative underpinning—which formally assures that the press would not be interfered with by the political class. Moreover, it insists on self-regulation of the press. The charter formalizes the Press Recognition Panel mandated to recognise self-regulatory institutions. Further legislation has been enacted that pledges incentives, especially for news outlets that voluntarily join a self-regulating body, such as protection from liability. However, the press industry players have faulted the Royal Charter by reiterating that it is not independent. They have insisted that the process of initiating the Royal Charter was owned and controlled by the politicians. Hence the industry does not recognise the Charter, and to add on to the scrutiny, the Hacked Off group has also weighed in with the fact that the Charter is under the control of the Privy Council. This Council is a sub-committee of Cabinet, which is consequently under the influence of government. In effect, the Royal Charter’s mandate would continue to be under criticism for its perceived attachment to the government, which in hindsight does not to guarantee press freedom.
Additionally, the UK Parliament also passed the Crimes and Courts Act of 2013 which would accompany and help operationalise the Royal Charter. The law would help defend litigants, more so the defendants, from the exorbitant costs linked to lawsuits, particularly if they are members of a self-regulating institution— and who can also provide inexpensive arbitration avenues. This law provision is only applicable to self-regulatory bodies that have been recognised by the panel. With the recognition process of IMPRESS ongoing, it might be the first institution to enjoy the incentives set out in the law.
However, there has been a delay in the commencement of Section 40 of the law (Hughes, 2016). This delay in the commencement of the law can be construed as interference by the government, which in effect goes against the spirit of the recommendations set out by the Leveson inquiry. It further undermines the public trust in the press—that is the watchdog of democracy—since the government has placed upon itself the power of Section 40 which they can deploy as a threat toward the press industry at any time if they so wish. Moreover, private representations driven by the news industry have contributed to the delay in implementing the self-regulatory structure.
The IPSO, which replaced the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) with an assurance to adhere to all the vital constituents of the Leveson inquiry, has fallen short of its promise. The new regulator appears to be equally ineffective as was its predecessor. Out of the 47 Leveson recommendations, IPSO has only satisfied 12 (Media Standard Trust, 2013). Furthermore, the Hacked Off Group has openly criticised the Royal Charter and how IPSO handles complaints of press misconduct. There are presently two institutions formed for self-regulation:
- The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is a self-regulatory organization that is not seeking a formal recognition by the Press Recognition Panel. It consists of the major publishers and newspaper outlets.
- Independent Monitor for the Press (IMPRESS) project, which is currently pursuing recognition from the Press Recognition Panel. Impress has accumulated a membership of thirty small publishers, but has insignificant support from the mainstream outlets.
Further criticisms have been levelled against the regulator IPSO. Firstly, the regulator is seen as too dependent on the print industry. The industry has a veto over how the system works and thus the claims of independence by the institution have been called into question. For the IPSO regulator to be taken as independent, it should be supervised by the Recognition Panel, plus it should endeavour to be recognised under the Royal Charter notwithstanding all the shortcomings of the Charter. Secondly Hacked Off has come out strongly against the process of arbitration practised by IPSO. They observe that IPSO only acts out of self-interest after consideration and consultation with its funding partners (Tambini, 2014). Furthermore, this procedure of arbitration does not bode well with the public, considering that the legal cost of lawsuits is prohibitive, and the publisher can opt out of providing arbitration; thus publishers and the public would be unable to afford legal justice.
However, Cathcart (2016) posited that the effectiveness of the self-regulation could be guaranteed if and when:
- IMPRESS is fully recognised under the Royal Charter it then could afford to give inexpensive arbitration procedures that would help meet standards envisioned by Lord Justice Brian Leveson in his recommendations. This would benefit both the journalists and aggrieved individuals.
- With the growing majority of the public supporting the implementation of the Leveson’s recommendation, it is inevitable that it will garner support from all political parties.
The Leveson recommendations were a step in the right direction with their broad proposals that would assure the independence of the press and their accountability. The recommendations envisage a balance between effective self-regulation and press freedom from political intrusion. To achieve such a balance, a central theme is “recognition” which Lord Leveson recommended should be mandated to Ofcom, with no role for politicians in the Recognition Panel. These regulations came at a crucial time when self-regulation had failed to protect individuals’ rights and promote ethical practices in journalism.
Most stories which have not been written with integrity and propriety end up as libel, infringement of privacy and rights of individuals’ situations. These cases have increased over the years, and the unethical practices seem to have taken root within many press outlets. There is little or no consideration to the public interest with the print media’s biggest concern being to increase revenue by sensationalizing the news. Most journalists hunt for top stories, without bearing in mind the privacy of individuals, and some of them, in search of the story, would border on harassing individuals. Although some journalists do abide by the code of ethics, there are limited repercussions for those that breach the law.
Press outlets have increasingly been dismissive of complaints all in the name of freedom of the press. Even though they issue public apologies, after being reprimanded, it is often done due to prominence and in other cases, the press has gone to extreme lengths by initiating personal attacks on their challengers. Accordingly, the concerns levelled against the current state of self-regulation are warranted; hence the government is obliged to revisit their policy with more attention on the Leveson’s recommendations with the aim of improving the current state of media regulation.
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BBC News, (2012). Press 'need to act' After Leveson - BBC News. [online] BBC News. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-15686679 [Accessed 20 Jul. 2016].
Cathcart, P. (2016). Effective Press Regulation Will Happen - Five Reasons to Be Confident Leveson Will Be Implemented. [online] The Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/professor-brian-cathcart/leveson-press-regulation_b_7449002.html [Accessed 19 Jul. 2016].
Hughes, T. (2016). Article 19; UN and OSCE Watchdogs Urged to Address Media Freedom in the UK. [online] Article19.org. Available at: https://www.article19.org/resources.php/resource/38411/en/un-and-osce-watchdogs-urged-to-address-media-freedom-in-the-uk [Accessed 20 Jul. 2016].
Leveson, L. (2012). An Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press: Executive Summary and Recommendations. London: The Stationery Office Limited, pp.5-34.
Media Standard Trust, (2013). The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO); An Assessment. 1st ed. [ebook] MST, pp.3-6. Available at: http://mediastandardstrust.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2013/11/MST-IPSO-Analysis-15-11-13.pdf [Accessed 20 Jul. 2016].
Tambini, D. (2014). It’s 2014 and We’re Still Implementing Leveson Inquiry Recommendations. [online] Media Policy Project. Available at: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mediapolicyproject/2014/01/08/its-2014-and-were-still-implementing-leveson-inquiry-recommendations/ [Accessed 19 Jul. 2016].
The National Archives, (2014). UK Government Web Archive – The National Archives [Archived Content]. [online] Webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk. Available at: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140122145147/http:/www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/about/ [Accessed 19 Jul. 2016].
Tomlinson, H. (2014). The New UK Model of Press Regulation. 1st ed. [eBook] London: LSE Media Policy Project, pp.12-24. Available at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/56424/ [Accessed 20 Jul. 2016].
- Quote paper
- Wahid Luvonga (Author), 2018, How does the current System for regulating the Press Compare with the Recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/417479