Friday, 30 November 2012

Leveson report: It's early days yet

The report by the UK's Lord Justice Leveson into the conduct of that country's press is making headlines but, as usual, his recommendations are not being explained adequately. It's a 2000-page document and it recommends "that a statutory body such as Ofcom should take responsibility for monitoring an overhauled Press Complaints Commission", according to the Guardian. Over at the Sydney Morning Herald it's reported that the Leveson report recommends that "An independent watchdog should be established by law to regulate newspapers", and in another story on the same website, we find:
He proposed expanding British regulator Ofcom's legal remit so it became a "verification" body, able to recognise an independent regulator that had "credible" rules and powers to enforce them - such as huge fines.

Publications would not be obliged to sign up to the new body but would be subject to harsher punishment if the courts found they libelled people or breached civil law.
It appears that the Leveson report contains a lot of detail that even the New York Times, which also reports on the publication, has been unable to cover adequately, although it does a better job than most:
In the current system of self-regulation by a body called the Press Complaints Commission, newspapers effectively regulate themselves. The report urged the creation of a new independent regulatory body with powers to fine offending newspapers up to $1.6 million, made up of people who are not serving editors and should not be either lawmakers or figures from the government.
What these stories now mainly come down to are statements of position from prominent politicians for or against Leveson's recommendations. This kind of politicisation of the issue is really not helpful, and newspapers should be putting more effort into explaining exactly what the almost-2000-page report contains. Just getting party leaders to make a pitch is not enough, and the media is failing its readers if that's all they can manage to offer us.

For example, it appears that one thing Leveson is recommending is something like a First Amendment in the UK to guarantee press freedom. This would obviously be a good thing - it's certainly something Australia's pussy-footed pollies have long resisted doing, for fear of actually increasing press access to government information (imagine that!) - but this part of the report has been overlooked by most media outlets who have, of course, a vested interest in seeing Rupert Murdoch's corporate interests publicly attacked.

There's little doubt that the "anything goes" attitude at swashbuckling Murdoch tabloids in the UK led to the abuses that incite Leveson's most trenchant comments. And it's no wonder that the UK's prime minister, David Cameron, a Conservative, should want to do as little as possible to encourage statutory measures such as Leveson suggests implementing. A free market, for a Tory, is better than government regulation - the nanny state, Leftie bothersomeness and all that - for someone like Cameron. We get the same thing in Australia with the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, backing Murdoch against Labor's Stephen Conroy, the communications minister, who is also due sometime soon to put forward a law for the media for debate in Parliament.

But what it comes down to is that bravery, initiative and striking headlines, attached as they are to increased circulation and hence higher advertising rates, and therefore increased income, were the real culprits at the now-defunct Murdoch tabloid News of the World. Murdoch is an independent spirit, to be sure, and has been successful in his chosen field by taking new avenues. It's no wonder that his employees are rewarded for the same kind of entrepreneurial spirit. But Leveson points out that this kind of corporate culture led to a breakdown in corporate governance at Murdoch vehicles.

If private corporations are not able to effectively ensure that they do not abuse the power that they carry then it is incumbent on government to step in. The same lesson arose in the wake of the GFC, where we saw rampant abuses by private corporations intent on maximising income with the result that millions of people globally have suffered significant material hardship. It is incumbent on governments to take legislative measures where corporations signally fail to protect individuals from abuse.

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