Britain’s scandal-plagued but feisty newspapers, used to stalking their prey, find themselves in an unusual position in the crosshairs as they await Brian Leveson’s recommendations for reforming the press, which are due next week.
After listening to 11 months of testimony from hundreds of witnesses during his inquiry into Britain’s phone-hacking scandal, Lord Leveson will present his findings to the British government on Nov. 29.
Both the press and its foes are terrified about the outcome. The still-powerful newspaper industry fears that Lord Leveson will recommend a government muzzle on the press, while phone-hacking victims are equally worried that papers that flouted the law will be left to police themselves, and no meaningful change will occur.
Each side has staged a vocal lobbying campaign to win the government’s ear and to propose its own plan for press regulation. “There’s been a very big debate, with the newspaper industry saying we don’t want anything statutory, we’ll only buy into a new form of self-regulation,” Richard Sambrook, head of the journalism program at the University of Cardiff, said in an interview. “Then you have the reformers who are saying that regulation needs to be independent of the industry. There’s already been a mock war, with one side trying to smear the other.”
Those who stand to win or lose next week include:
Members of the Hacked Off campaign, a reform group spearheaded by actor Hugh Grant, recently met with British Prime Minister David Cameron to soften him to their position on the Leveson recommendations, which they hope will involve an independent body using robust new laws to tame the tabloids. Until now, the Press Complaints Commission has been the main watchdog, although a toothless one.
A recent poll showed that 63 per cent of the British public didn’t trust the press to police itself, perhaps a result of a year’s worth of testimony about the depths to which newspapers – mainly tabloids, known as “redtops” – would sink to get a story.
Novelist J.K. Rowling told the inquiry that a reporter left a note in her child’s backpack, and Mr. Grant alleged that tabloid journalists had broken into his apartment, but the most devastating testimony came from the families of crime victims, who had been stalked, harassed and spied upon by tabloid journalists.
The Leveson inquiry was set up in July, 2011, after allegations that journalists from Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid had eavesdropped on the phone messages of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, among others. Subsequent investigation revealed the widespread hacking of phones belonging to politicians, sports stars and crime victims. The 168-year-old News of the World, Britain’s top-selling paper, was shut down in July, 2011.
Most of Britain’s newspapers back a proposal for the industry to regulate itself, with a strengthened Editors’ Code governing journalistic practice and a fine of up to £1-million ($1.6-million) for publications that breach the guidelines. Editors, owners and some high-profile Tories fiercely oppose the idea of any government regulation of the press: “A free press is essential to a truly democratic society. Weaken the former and you weaken the latter,” said Simon O’Neill, the editor of Mr. Cameron’s local paper, the Oxford Mail. London Mayor and Telegraph newspaper columnist Boris Johnson, speaking this week at a dinner given by the right-wing Spectator magazine, told the politicians present, “Don’t you think for one minute about regulating the press in this country, which has been free for 300 years.”
The Leveson inquiry also investigated relations between politicians and the press, which proved embarrassing for Mr. Cameron’s coalition government and previous Labour governments. Famously, it was revealed that Mr. Cameron sent texts to his friend, Rebekah Brooks, one-time editor of another Murdoch title, the Sun, that ended “LOL.” He thought it meant, “lots of love.” The Sun switched its allegiance from Labour to the Tories before the election that brought Mr. Cameron to office.
Ms. Brooks and Andy Coulson, Mr. Cameron’s former spokesman, are facing phone-hacking and bribery charges. (Several journalists and public officials have been charged in criminal investigations related to phone-hacking and payment for stories.)
Mr. Cameron has indicated he would follow Lord Leveson’s recommendations as long as they weren’t “bonkers,” but, as the leader of an unpopular government, he’s in a precarious position if he tries to impose controls on the press. Newspapers, though diminished in influence, are still a powerful force in British political life.
Says Prof. Sambrook: “Most people feel that the government isn’t really going to want to take on the whole of the British press as it starts to think about the next general election in a couple of years’ time.”