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Vivid: Leveson Report – Does it serve its purpose?

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Vivid: Leveson Report – Does it serve its purpose?

Last month, the Leveson Report was published in the United Kingdom, a review of the general culture and ethics of the British media, along with recommendations for a new, independent, body to replace the existing Press Complaints Commission. The PCC’s replacement would be ‘lent teeth’ with a set of new laws.

What began with the conviction of the then ‘News of the World’ royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire in the famous phone-hacking case, has come a long way – today the British Press has Lord Justice Leveson with his 1,987-page report of nine months of hearings which clearly wants a new system underpinned by statute.

Leveson wants the Press to establish an organisation for itself to set its own standards, form a redress system for victims of misreporting and create punitive measures with a new arbitration process recognised by the British judiciary system.

The organisation, with the principal mandate to ensure that a free Press does not abuse its freedom, will be autonomous, independent from the industry as well as the government. To ensure that, the organisation will be powerful – a statutory body – for everyone from the industry to join.

According to ‘The Observer’ editorial, “Leveson believes this must be backed by law – to ensure that it lasts, that everyone joins and that powerful incentives to join up are provided. Newspapers' freedom of speech would become legally guaranteed as in the US’s first amendment. To run its arbitration process – in effect a court – the Press trust must have legal powers to arbitrate and settle defamation disputes quickly and much more cheaply than under the current system, in particular becoming exempt from costly exemplary damages. Newspapers would have the legal right to protect their sources. These are all valuable gains.”

To an extent one is clear what Levson wants. For one, he proposes that all privately-owned organisations – in this case the private media – be not only the provider of information to the masses but also stand with the masses in consuming the information. Secondly, he wants the free Press to be accountable too, where it has prescribed its own set of regulations.

Towards this, as Shammi Chakrabarti, one of the six advisers assisting the Leveson Inquiry, says, it would mean “a compulsory statute to regulate media ethics” and the Press being “coerced in being held to higher standards than anyone else”.

One can understand why such a curtailment becomes necessary, be it the ‘News of the
World’ phone-hacking case or our own Radia tapes where journalists are alleged to have ‘used’ news for their personal interests, and of course, paid news. By these, it would seem that not all ‘facts’ printed are necessarily true or plain reportage, and some journalists, newspapers and TV news channels are culpable of abusing the ability to report, putting famous people against the wall, abusing the freedom of Press, staging sting operations for
blackmail, and taking the law keepers to task on flimsy, unfounded and concocted grounds.

In the truest of sense, all these tantamount to misinformation.

At the same time, there are those who say that the Leveson Report is nothing else but an obtuse way for trying to muzzle the media.  Even British Prime Minister David Cameron has told MPs that “we should think very carefully before crossing this line…the danger is that this would create a vehicle for politicians to impose regulations on the Press”.

In his report, Leveson has said that neither editors nor politicians should be part of the new independent body, which would be empowered to impose fines of up to £1 million on newspapers found guilty of breaking the standards code. He has also said that the proposed regulatory model “should not provide an added burden to the regional and local press” which, according to him, is praiseworthy of making an ‘unparallelled’ contribution to local life.

‘The Observer’ says the Leveson Report “leaves open the possibility of the industry developing more than one model of Press regulation. It would be possible, say, for some newspapers, the regional Press, some magazines and online news organisations to create their own independent Press trust backed by law – and those publications that did not want to be part of it to create their own self-regulatory body but which would attract none of the immunities and advantages”.

One wonders who will take the time off to identify and create the fine line between the regional and the national Press.  Even if one is able to do so, would it not further divide, disintegrate and marginalise the Press on regulatory grounds?

‘The Daily Beast’ points out that the United Kingdom has no equivalent of the First Amendment of the United States, and that the “British press is already heavily regulated and home to some of the most onerous libel laws in the Western world”. The portal that professes to combine the depth and investigative power of the ‘Newsweek’ magazine, says that “Leveson believes that Britain’s press requires further intervention, offering this worrisome — and worryingly vague — recommendation: Interference with the activities
of the media shall be lawful only insofar as it is for a legitimate purpose and is necessary in a democratic society, having full regard to the importance of media freedom in a democracy”.

Lord Justice Leveson has also made some pretty angry too – and concerned. ‘’, in its ‘counter-Leveson inquiry’ column ‘Standing Up for Press Freedom’, is vehement in stating that “it is alarming that, in a country where the poet John Milton demanded freedom of the press more than 350 years ago, and where many other writers and activists subsequently fought tooth-and-catapult to expel state forces from the worlds of writing and publishing, so many should now acquiesce to an inquiry which gives a judge and his chums the power to tell the media what its morals should be.

The conformism amongst the targets of the inquiry – that is, the Press – is even more shocking than the cockiness of the organisers of it, those figures of authority who seem to have forgotten that the Press is supposed to investigate them, not vice versa.”

I feel that the hysteria about the Press in the UK has more to do with a fire stoked by politicians, the social media regulars and serious journalists than the tabloids -- whose wings the Leveson Report actually wants to clip – themselves. And be warned. This could set a precedent for all Britain’s battered institutions, publicly distrusted and questioned, to
spark inquiries.

I’d like to question what's so unethical about tabloids? For, casting all of them in the mould of the ‘News of the World’ is generalising it a bit too much. And if you are really keen to put the tabloids in their place, you need to look at the paparazzi too. Worse, Leveson is a process of creating a Licence-and-Regulatory Raj whose spill-over to ‘serious journalism’ –
which reports misdoings in governance, in political corridors and under the public’s very nose – is bound to happen.

What are the implications and learnings for Indian media from Leveson Report? Do we need Leveson Report kind guidelines in India? Does the Press Council need to be given more teeth?

Is Indian media becoming like British tabloids? Is yellow journalism becoming a rule rather than an exception?

Let’s just say that tabloid or the serious media, freedom of the Press is not to be meddled with. There are necessary evils and perhaps the Press worldwide has been the most vocal about the evils that lurk within it.

Freedom is not always about the ethical and the unethical, it is also about weighing one against another. And invariably, the ethical wins. You don’t need a Leveson Report for that.


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