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Leveson inquiry into UK press: the experts respond

Lord Justice Leveson with the Report from the Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press. AAP/ EPA/Gareth Fuller

Lord Justice Leveson has released the recommendations of the Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press, which was prompted by the Murdoch press phone hacking scandal that erupted last year.

Among the key points is a recommendation for an independent press regulator that is backed by law.

That suggestion has already been rejected by British Prime Minister David Cameron, citing concern for press freedom but his coalition partner, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg supports the idea.

British Labour leader Ed Miliband has backed most of the Leveson findings.

Here are some expert responses to the findings:

Michael Williams, Senior Lecturer and Head of Media Ethics, University of Central Lancashire

As the head of ethics in the School of Journalism and Digital Communication, Britain’s biggest academic journalism school, I did a quick straw poll of my students and the majority thought Leveson had got it about right. About two-thirds are in favour of some sort of statutory underpinning.

As for me, it seems a shame that Cameron’s veto has now turned it entirely into a Westminster story of political wrangling and “under-the table” lobbying - which was surely what Leveson wanted to get away from. In any case, the train has probably left the station. The journalists of the future regard this a tussle between middle-aged people living in the past. The future is about the post-newspaper world.

Chris Nash, Professor of Journalism, Monash University.

The argument from the press proprietors that they somehow represent the public interest in this news production based on what people are prepared to buy is complete nonsense.

The question now becomes how the state can best represent the public interest without becoming state regulation. I think Finkelstein and Leveson are basically on the same page.

They want a serious regulatory regime with teeth and they want that to be achieved in a way that does not smack of state regulation.

ABC radio this morning had a succession of Tory MPs on saying, “This is state regulation of the media”. But that’s not at all what’s being proposed.

What’s likely to happen is the business model for mainstream journalism as we have known it will continue to collapse. I suspect a lot of media will opt not to be considered part of mainstream journalism. They will be veering along towards Zoo magazine, looking at people’s private lives, that sort of thing.

One of the questions I don’t think Leveson has addressed is to what extent bloggers or new niche journalism is a concern.

I think a lot of the major proprietors will just say, “We are not really journalism, we are in the entertainment business and we don’t really want to be covered by this”.

Quite clearly, News Corporation has operated on a whatever-it-takes basis. There are very serious crimes alleged against some of these senior executives. The fact that it was tolerated in a major journalistic corporation says a huge amount.

You have seen a narrowing of the orientation of the journalism in the News Corporation papers here. The Daily Telegraph in Sydney has been almost rabid in its approach to the events this week in parliament with respect to Gillard. The Australian has also single-mindedly pursued the government for the past few years. People aren’t stupid. People see that.

The major Australian political parties have been absolutely supine in relation to the major media proprietors for many decades.

Gillard and Conroy were brought to the Finkelstein inquiry by the Greens. That said, the Labor Party has seriously been a victim, along with the Greens, of partisan reporting by News Limited papers. And now the Fairfax media and particularly the Financial Review have taken a shift to the right in their coverage.

So as the failure of the business model plays through, the government of the day may decide at some point there is something to be said in terms of strengthening media regulation beyond the absolute joke we have got at the moment.

I think the Gillard government is feeling a bit more emboldened politically. It’s hard to see what the News Limited papers could do to them that they haven’t done already.

David McKnight, Senior Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales

Self-regulation has obviously failed completely, and the public has little or no trust that another version could work. Critics of Leveson really have the obligation to say, how could self-regulation work again? Self-regulation as in completely independent of government and without any statutory base.

I would say the talk by publishers of a 300-year-old tradition of freedom the press, as a way of trying to say we must not agree with any form of regulation that involves laws, is really a cover for commercial self interest. The damage to freedom of the press has been done by the owners and editors of the papers whose names we all know and whose illegal activities we’ve all become aware of.

I think that if Britain adopts Leveson’s recommendations it gives an impetus, if the Gillard Government chooses to be brave, for a similar sort of system here.

Obviously, we haven’t had a hacking scandal but what we do have is an ineffective system of self-regulation, that’s been ineffective for many, many decades. It’s entirely voluntary. I don’t think there is a hacking scandal going on in Australia, but if there was the current system could not deal with it.

Julian Disney, Chair of the Press Council and Professor at the University of New South Wales

I regard it as a very moderate response to the problem in the United Kingdom, which is greater than here but there are significant problems here as well.

There are there are some significant things we would benefit from adopting.

For instance, we have moved ahead of the UK in that we have contractually binding requirements to stay in the [Press Council] in effect for a four-year rolling period. [Media organisations] have to give four years notice before getting out.

Leveson has said he doesn’t think that kind of contractual arrangement, which was proposed by our counterpart in the UK, was sufficient. He says you need more than that and I think there’s a very strong case for that.

He proposes than an arbitrator system should be set up which would enable cheap and quick resolution of what would otherwise go to the courts in terms of disputes between members of the public and newspapers.

He says if publishers join and remain in the regulatory body then they would have advantages for that arbitrator service. If complainants don’t agree to subject themselves to the arbitration service then that would count against them when they go to the courts.

So there is potentially a powerful incentive to come into and remain subject to the regulatory body. He recognises the crucial importance of that and that contracts may not be enough.

He also emphasises, and I think quite rightly, the need to actively monitor media standards rather than just respond to complaints. And the need to actively oversee and report on publishers’ internal systems.

Those two things, we have already decided to do and we have some agreement from the publishers to do that and as our resources come on stream in the coming year I hope we will be able to get started.

I think the statutory underpinning for the privileges has considerable strengths.

On the argument about statutory regulation, the media has to do a lot better in its analysis of that proposal. A lot of it is riddled with misrepresentation, overstatement and lack of perception.

If it is feared this very minor form of government involvement risks the independence of the body, what does it say then for a body that is totally funded by the publishers? How is a body of that kind going to be able to convince people that it is independent?

The answer to independence lies in a mixture of funding and responsibilities and without that anyone will always have a credibility problem.

The reason why you need it has been very clearly demonstrated by the response of the British PM. The extent to the which politicians are scared to take any action in this area is a manifestation of the problem.

To argue that one should have a self-regulatory body that you don’t even have to be in, is a pretty big stretch in terms of the credibility of the body. In England and here and in Canada, in the last few years, publishers have got out because they weren’t able to subject themselves to the disciplines of being in.

If this applied to any other profession, the media would be the first to criticise it. Most of the publishers here have taken a step ahead of the UK in agreeing to be bound into the body for a substantial period and they deserve credit for that but as Leveson points out, what happens after that initial period?

There is a ludicrous tendency to regard any kind of statutory involvement as if it is the ultimate kind of statutory involvement.

For example, I heard on ABC this morning that this report was like the Finkelstein Report. Now, it’s nothing like the Finkelstein report. That lack of accuracy is very concerning.

Anyone who says [Leveson] goes further than Finkelstein is completely mistaken.

Finkelstein recommends a new body [which was to be called the News Media Council but now looks unlikely] be set up that has statutory powers of investigation and [Leveson’s proposed regulator] has no statutory powers of investigation. With Finkelstein’s [proposed News Media Council] you had to be a member by statute, but with [Leveson] you don’t.

There’s a fair amount of hypocrisy here. The media wants statutory privileges. They want statutory intervention when it suits them but not on any conditions. All this is saying is if you want these privileges, you have to sign up to this body. If you don’t want the privileges – and in the case of the arbitrator services, it’s a new privilege – then don’t sign up.

I would imagine not all of [Leveson’s] recommendations will be implemented. The Prime Minister there clearly doesn’t have a strong commitment to the issue.

There’s a very interesting and good recommendation by Leveson that senior executives and editors of newspapers should have to record or announce all unofficial meetings with senior politicians. I agree with that completely.

These meetings are not about a particular story. Not what was discussed but the fact that they met. We don’t have that problem as badly in Australia but it’s not a bad principle.

There may be a focus on the idea that Leveson proposes fines and the media yet again may report wrongly we [in the Press Council] have sought the power to fine but we have not. It’s quite incidental to what we are on about.

Andrea Carson, PhD researcher at the University of Melbourne and former journalist at The Age

I think it’s a pretty sound, detailed and clever report. It’s clever in recommending independent self-regulation of the British press but with statutory underpinning.

It’s a clever design in that it’s got powerful sticks and carrots as incentives to get the press to sign on.

In the words of Leveson himself, the press has been in charge of marking their own homework and that’s clearly failed.

Even though it may be regarded by some as a government statutory body, it is, in fact, not and is independent from government.

[The independent regulator] will require legislation but Leveson is at pains to say it will be appointed by an independent council. There will be mechanisms in place to ensure it is free of government and industry intervention. That’s the problem at the moment: that there’s too much industry intervention.

I am on the side of Ed Miliband. Leveson himself says it’s the first time ever in British law it will enshrine a legal duty on the government to protect freedom of the press.

I think David Cameron’s response has an element of hyperbole to it. He had said earlier on he would support Leveson unless it was absolutely bonkers. The very detailed report put forward now is not bonkers.

It doesn’t go as far as the Irish system goes.

Clearly, the system was broken in the UK and this is a strong, purposeful document to try and fix that.

There could be a weakness in one of the recommendations relating to data protection rules. It might, in practice, be too limiting in the way journalists source and use information for reporting in the public interest. But this is a recommendation and those things now need be discussed.

Rod Tiffen, Emeritus Professor, Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney

It has been a very searching examination. The result is that a whole series of abuses that no one really knew the scale or nastiness of has been revealed. As he said, they made the lives of ordinary people misery for decades.

What they have got there is a pattern of criminality that is already illegal has been carried on because sections of the tabloid press in Britain have become a sort of law unto themselves.

Well, they didn’t clean up their act. They got worse and worse.

As far as I can see at first blush, it’s a good series of checks and balances that give a statutory backing to systems of redress and investigations of press abuses but doesn’t do so in away that should inhibit free speech or give the government of the day any greater power in affecting news coverage.

Cameron goes back on what he said he would do. When he set up the commission, he said it would follow the recommendations unless they were bonkers. Yet the day the report is released, within hours he is saying he won’t implement its most important recommendation.

I think the Lib Dems and Labour together may actually force this through parliament, which puts Cameron in a very difficult position.

The politics of it are still quite unpredictable. What is predictable, unfortunately, is that the Murdoch press and the Daily Mail are beating the drum of ‘press freedom’ in a mindless way – just as we saw in Australia after the Finkelstein report – without coming to grips with their own abuses of power or the competing principles to do with free speech at work here.

Bruce Arnold, Lecturer in Law at the University of Canberra

It’s a beautifully written report and has significant implications for Australia.

He is absolutely damning of the UK regime, UK politicians, UK media and governance within News Corporation.

There is a proven need for the media to get their house in order. We don’t want government regulations or a politicisation of regulation. However, we do need a system of regulation that’s independent on both government and the media and a system that has some teeth.

The application for Australia is that the problem we have here is the media self regulates and there’s a press council with no teeth. It has no power.

He is calling for a system where there is meaningful enforcement but it will be independent of the media groups.

More broadly, there needs to be real transparency in government decision-making about investment decisions, the Australian Convergence Review. Who gets to own broadcasting networks or take over the print groups like Fairfax?

I think they will kill it with kindness in the UK. The great and the good will get up and say, ‘We love the idea but there’s a few little issues with implementation’ and the traditional bureaucratic response will kill it off.

The UK regulator has to be backed by law otherwise it’s meaningless. All the Murdochs could disappear but the problems would still be there. We are talking about structural problems with an industry that self regulates.

The regulator must have teeth otherwise it’s like being smacked with a lettuce leaf.

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