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Press and freedom

Lord Justice Leveson's report into dodgy newspaper antics is scheduled to land on desks tomorrow with a resounding thud, exciting media lawyers across the UK. But, asks Jonathan Ames, has the whole tortuous process achieved anything worthwhile?

William Randolph Hearst: bit of a yellow tinge

William Randolph Hearst: bit of a yellow tinge

After almost a year and a half and a bill to taxpayers of some £4 million, the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press is set to hand down its report tomorrow. What has Britain and the wider world learnt from what was at times a tedious grind and occasionally an enthralling celebrity circus?
That lawyers – inculcated in the mentality of hourly billing – will spend weeks arriving at a point most people would get to in a day.
That various film and television personalities, who in the past have been keen on soft journalistic attention when promoting their latest projects, are less enthusiastic when potentially embarrassing aspects of their personal lives are exposed.
That Robert Jay QC – lead counsel to the inquiry – fancies himself in a pair of designer spectacles.
That the whole shooting match possibly turned out to be a glorified job interview for Brian Leveson, who is reported today to be polishing his CV in a bid to apply for the top judicial slot in England, the role of Lord Chief Justice.
And of course, we’ve learnt that occasionally – and arguably far too often – elements of Britain’s tabloid press behave scurrilously and at times illegally. That their rabid pursuit of stories and circulation figures results in the trammelling of ordinary and often vulnerable lives.

Yellow history

At the risk of sounding brutal -- what’s new? In the 1890s, New York newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst unleashed their editors to tear strips out of each other and the subjects of their ‘investigations’ in a carnivorous circulation battle that resulted in the term ‘yellow journalism’. The derivation of the expression is uncertain, but it signified practices that would probably make even today’s ‘phone hacking Fleet Street reptile blanch.
That is not to suggest that just because craven practices in the press have a long history, they are justifiable. Only that western – and especially Anglo-Saxon – societies have been wrestling with the issue for some time.
The crucial question for society in the UK now is whether the answer to this conundrum – balancing freedom of speech and the benefits of investigative journalism with concepts of privacy and common decency – requires statutory regulation. And the answer is an emphatic ‘no’, as statutory regulation would do nothing to cure the perceived ills.

Common touch

All of the problems and vile behaviour chewed over in the Leveson Inquiry could have been dealt with by existing law – whether statute or common law precedent. Intercepting telecommunications methods is illegal, as is harassing and threatening people in their daily lives. A well established – and some would suggest, highly claimant-friendly -- law on defamation exists, and there is an increasing body of precedent to protect what the courts are defining as private life.
Creating a statutory body to rule on press behaviour will only create another layer of ultimately useless red tape, as disputed decisions will ultimately end up in the courts anyway.
The real issue for the UK government is not whether the mechanisms for punishing law-breaking publishers exist, but whether the victims have access to the levers of justice. Resorting to legal action is expensive (see that earlier quip regarding lawyers and billable hours), and while celebrities can generally afford the ride, those brutalised ordinary members of the public that Lord Justice Leveson and others are so concerned about, generally cannot.

Filling the gap

Successive British governments have slashed and burnt the country’s legal aid budget since the system was launched in the post-Second World War spirit of socialist common purpose. Legal aid for defamation cases was abolished about two decades ago. The much touted replacement of conditional fee agreements has been chopped and changed and, argue many civil liberties lawyers, it has never adequately filled the gap.
But dealing with that access to justice issue is a far more complicated – and expensive – challenge for any government, not least a Conservative-led coalition in the midst of an austerity programme. A public flogging of the press is cheaper and potentially more satisfying for the floggers.
However, it is short-termism at its worst – and potentially hugely damaging to Britain’s position in the world. Proponents of statutory regulation will wince at this, but then they should. Throughout recent history, who has been on their side? Well, let’s just say that Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet were all keen supporters of the firm hand of press regulation.
 

Posted by:

Jonathan
Ames

27 November 2012

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