The British press brought itself into disrepute in the phone-hacking scandal, but not the notion of a free press, unregulated by government. The recommendations by a British judicial inquiry that an independent regulatory body be created for newspapers, backed by government legislation and featuring fines up to $1.6-million, would put undue limits on press freedom.
A criminal subculture infected elements of British papers, especially Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid News of the World, now closed, and the best answer to criminality is prosecution and actions in civil court for damages. Ninety people have been arrested, including some of British journalism’s leading lights, and their trials will send a message that crime in news reporting, like crime in any other sphere, is not to be tolerated.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who set up the judicial inquiry, deserves credit for expressing apprehensions about “crossing the Rubicon” toward regulating the press. It would be easy to give in to the many victims, who were deeply harmed by an out-of-control newspaper culture. It would be easy to stand by as a board reminiscent of the one contemplated by Alberta’s short-lived Accurate News and Information Act of 1937 was given life, this time as a defender of the vulnerable, rather than as a protector of government.
It would be easy to remember the phone-hacking of a murdered teenage girl’s voice mail, the harassment of the Royal Family, celebrities and their children, the pressure verging on blackmail on politicians, without also remembering the vitality of debate in the fiercely competitive British national newspaper market, which delivered the country the truth about legislators’ often ridiculously excessive use of expense accounts.
Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson is right when he says the good performers shouldn’t shield the bad. He is right to decry all the myriad wrongs. He is right to ask why those who investigate wrongdoing of the powerful turned a blind eye to their own misdeeds. But the independence of newspapers is a democratic cornerstone just as judicial independence is. In the end, Britain does not need the complicated new regulatory framework Lord Justice Leveson proposes. It doesn’t need to force politicians to publicly report on their contacts with newspaper executives – a weird suggestion in a democracy. It is looking in the wrong places. It needs to enforce its laws against harassment, invasion of privacy and theft of personal data.