Media Ethics: The Leveson Inquiry and how it relates to freedom of the press pt.1

[This is part 1 of a media ethics assignment for university. I had to split it up because it was about 2200 words. Admittedly, I’m not too strong on academic writing, but I thought that it would be an interesting starting point to get conversation going.]

On July 13 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron announced an inquiry that would investigate the role of the press and the police in the phone-hacking committed by editors and reporters at the News of the World. 337 witnesses gave evidence in person, and the statements of 300 others were read into the record.

However, the scope of the Leveson inquiry was much broader than a simple analysis of the criminal breaches committed. Lord Justice Leveson and his committee examined the cases and evidence given, then proceeded to formulate recommendations to alter the behaviour of the British press. These were compiled into the four volumes of the Leveson report that was released on November 29, 2012.

When announcing the release of his report, Lord Leveson stated:

“I know how vital the press is – all of it – as guardian of the interest to the public, as a critical witness to events, as the standard bearer for those who have no one else to speak up for them.”

While the report was described as two-fold, because it dealt with the failings of both the press and the police in the phone-hacking scandal, it could be seen as three-fold with regards to its analysis of the press. It could be split into three broader themes: factual examination of the situation up to this point, a critical review of the current situation, and recommendations for regulation in the future.

He was very cautious with his recommendations, and yet very persistent that they should be heeded.

Leveson’s report suggested the best way to ease the press into change was through an independent self-regulating body. This body would encourage higher standards of journalism through a code of conduct and offer incentives to newspapers to become part of the system. It would also have to be capable of providing advice and dealing with complaints regarding its members, including those relating to civil and criminal law, in order to protect the public.

This is a precaution in order to maintain the freedom of the press. If this body were to be state-regulated, the validity and legitimacy of the press – and of modern democracy – would be completely undermined. The purpose of having a free press is captured very well in Chris Frost’s witness statement for the inquiry, submitted on behalf of the National Union of Journalists:

“Journalists are simply carrying out, as a profession, the right of all citizens to freedom of expression. Registration [to a professional body, much like doctors] runs the risk of limiting access to the media, preventing the wide range of different voices that is vital in a free society.”

The existence and maintenance of a free press is not only an ethical issue, but also a legal one: article 10 of the Human Rights Act of 1998, incorporating text directly from the Charter of Fundamental Freedoms of the European Convention of Human Rights states that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

The aforementioned article provides the fundamental legal platform for journalists to do their job. With state regulation out of the question, the other option is self-regulation, which Leveson described as “the press marking its own homework”. However, setting up an independent self-regulatory system would mean that a certain standard and code of behaviour could be guaranteed.

As Frost mentions in his statement, any such regulation of the press would require statutory underpinning. This would supply enough legal support to be able to exert authority and relevant sanctions against culpable journalists or publishers.

Lord Leveson’s report was examined closely by a Scottish group of experts led by Lord McCluskey, to see how implementation of Leveson’s recommendations would work in Scotland.

Lord McCluskey’s report considers one of the systems of regulation proposed: opt-in, opt-out for publishers. This would, in theory, not be compulsory, and relies on the hope that incentives could be given that publishers would find beneficial. Beyond the structural and legal difficulties of setting this up, the ethical implications of coercing publishers to do ‘the right thing’ or letting them choose would amount to the perpetuation of the current situation.

Of course, doing nothing at all after Leveson’s inquiry would not change anything either. If self-regulation were to be adopted, it would suggest that somehow journalists would suddenly become more ethical. While such a body might not impose upon the freedom of the press, expecting ethical journalism to suddenly come from journalists whose practices were at the very least questionable would not be realistic. Not building ethics into the system would ultimately defy the entire purpose of freedom of speech. Of course, had this report had been released in the USA, where the First Amendment offers more leverage.

Throughout the inquiry, various persons have pointed out that the majority of journalists are ethical most – if not all – the time. However, we cannot ignore that there is a serious lack of distrust from the public and murky decision-making methods in the industry. The absence of ethics in practice could come from two things – the journalist or the editor.

It could be that the journalist’s ethical compass is not sound, meaning that the responsibility for action taken would lie with the journalist. The industry still remembers the case of Stephen Glass, who fabricated most of his articles without batting an eyelash.

On the other hand, some journalists are driven to unethical behaviour by others; editors have been known to intimidate journalists into unethical deeds for the sake of a story. This could range from simply modifying the focus of an article – such that it tells a completely different story – to threats and coercion into illegal activity, such as phone-hacking.

The latter is why the National Union of Journalists is striving to include some form of conscience clause in the new Code (or, as Frost suggests, in the new Communications Act) ,whereby a journalist will be able to object to performing certain activities altogether on ethical grounds, without jeopardizing his or her job. Unfortunately, with ethics and morality varying from person to person and a non-absolute, it is hard to determine how this would be verified.


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