There is too much heat and smoke over press freedom in Britain today. We are a bunch of red-faced men and women shouting opinions very loudly at each other. Too many late nights and not enough fresh air. We need to be very, very calm; more considered, more Canadian.
Consider just one key issue: is Lord Justice Leveson, whose 2000-page report on abuses committed by the tabloid press was released to an explosive response on Thursday, really recommending statutory control of the press?
Lord Leveson himself says not. He writes: “This is not, and cannot be characterized as, statutory regulation of the press. What is proposed here is independent regulation of the press organized by the press, with a statutory verification process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness are met by the system.”
The editor of The Spectator, on the other hand, represents the view of nearly all the British press. He says Lord Leveson is guilty of Humpty Dumptyism: “Lord Leveson announced his plans for statutory regulation of the press – with his bizarre instruction that we were not to call it statutory regulation.”
This is the die that the British Prime Minister does not wish to cast. David Cameron believes that it would mean politicians setting the parameters under which the press operates (which it hasn’t done in Britain since 1695). “We would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land,” he said on Thursday.
But the other main parties see no Rubicon – just a harmless stream that they are happy to splash through.
In a matter of a few hours there is a giant muddle forming. Consider this:
1) “Statutory regulation” describes a body functioning entirely under statute, probably funded by the state and generally answerable to parliament or to a minister, such as the BBC or the British judiciary.
2) “Regulation with statutory underpinning” can create a self-regulator subject to inspection by a body created under statute (see above). This is model proposed by Lord Leveson.
3) “Regulation backed by statute” can create a body that is independent but that is nonetheless recognized in law – like the Irish model of press regulation where their press council is recognized in their Defamation Act.
Many are tarring (1) with the brush of (2). Many are defending (2) using the example of (3). And this is just one issue out of many that must be pondered.
In the absence of time for reflection, all I have is an instinct. The instinct is based on experience working in newspapers including editing papers in different nations and at different extremes of the spectrum: a raucous tabloid (the British Daily Express) and a seriously thoughtful title (the Canadian Globe and Mail).
My instinct is that the Leveson report is excellent on the investigation of wrongdoing but lacks wisdom and breadth in its proposals for change.
The report contains much that is frankly naive about off-the-record briefings and data protection. Neither statutory systems (1) nor (2) nor (3) would work in Britain when applied to the press. The first reaction to any regulation or underpinning or backing would be defiant and mischievous.
The massive increase in statutory regulation in the British financial industry over the past 20 years has created a monster in which the richest players hire lawyers and compliance officers to push the rules as far as they can.
The British press is hugely varied. Tough and independent self-regulation will work because the responsible parts will keep those tempted to be irresponsible in check.
Most of all, Lord Leveson is naive about perception. No matter how clever his reforms, they will be seen around the world as a blow to freedom of expression.
I take very seriously the views of groups such as Index on Censorship and Liberty both of which are vehemently opposed. If Britain has a significant role in the world of the future it is largely about history. Experience has produced a British way of doing things that is largely humane and sensible.
Lord Leveson, innocently enough, would inject a heavy dose of legal botox into our comfortably wrinkled cheek.
Richard Addis, a former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, is managing director and editor-in-chief of The Day, a London-based online news service for students.