Leveson Inquiry Recommends New Regulator for British Press

by and Jason M. Breslow
Watch Murdoch’s Scandal, FRONTLINE’s look inside the struggle over the future of News Corp.

A long-awaited inquiry into the British press in the wake of a phone-hacking and bribery scandal has recommended the creation of an independent regulator to police a media culture that “at times, can only be described as outrageous,” according to the report.

The so-called Leveson report, named after the judge who was tapped to lead the inquiry, was tasked with investigating the “culture, practices and ethics” of the British press after a scandal that has led to charges of bribery against top newspaper executives in the media empire of Rupert Murdoch.

The fallout, which FRONTLINE examined in Murdoch’s Scandal, initially focused on public figures, including politicians and celebrities, whose mobile phone voicemails had been hacked by journalists at the News of the World, a now defunct Murdoch tabloid. Public outrage grew after it was alleged that journalists also hacked into the voicemail box of a missing 13-year-old girl, Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered.

“It was said that the News of the World had ‘lost its way’ in relation to phone hacking; its casual attitude to privacy and the lip service it paid to consent demonstrated a far more general loss of direction,” the report concluded.

Thursday’s report was not the first time the Murdoch media empire has come under scrutiny from British lawmakers. In April, a parliamentary report (pdf) declared Murdoch, who disavowed any knowledge of the hacking, “not a fit person” to run a major international company, saying that he “did not take steps to become fully informed about phone-hacking, he turned a blind eye and exhibited willful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications.”

Murdoch later stepped down from the boards of several newspapers, including his directorship of News International.

And earlier this month, top Murdoch executives Rebekah Brooks and Andrew Coulson and two reporters were charged with bribing public officials.

Today’s 2,000-page report extended its critique beyond the News of the World, however, concluding that “too many stories in too many newspapers were the subject of complaints from too many people, with too little in the way of titles taking responsibility, or considering the consequences for the individuals involved.”

To safeguard against future scandal, the report urged the formation of an independent regulator that would have the authority to fine media outlets as much as $1.6 million. Representatives on the council should not be newspaper editors, and should be outside of government, the report recommended.

Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, welcomed the idea of increased oversight of the press, but warned the House of Commons against “crossing the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.”

“I believe that we should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press,” Cameron said.

Negotiations over any regulation to come out of the report will be closely watched, particularly given Leveson’s findings about the relationship between lawmakers and several leading newspaper owners. The report did not single out any government official for wrongdoing, but did say that for at least the past 30 to 35 years, lawmakers “have had or developed too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest.”

Leveson was appointed by the prime minister to chair the multi-million dollar inquiry, which began in July 2011, to examine the relationships between the press and police, politicians and recommend new regulations that would protect the independence of the press while imposing higher ethical standards.

The British press has regulated itself for more than 50 years, after establishing a voluntary Press Council to maintain ethical standards.

But in the 1980s, a series of media missteps led the government to investigate ways to hold the press accountable. The 1990 report recommended, among other things, that the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) be set up to field public complaints. Media houses, which would fund the PCC, also agreed to follow an Editor’s Code of Practice that set policies on issues such as accuracy, privacy and harassment.

Since the Leveson inquiry began, the PCC has been under fire for failing to respond to the hacking scandal, with Prime Minister David Cameron calling for a “new system entirely.”  The PCC has proposed some reforms, but given the scathing report and Cameron’s own comments, the media’s era of self-regulation may be over.

A newsagent sells copies of the newly-published The Sun on Sunday weekly tabloid, in central London in February 2012. News Corp.'s The Sun on Sunday launched that weekend, promising the same irreverent attitude that has kept The Sun tabloid at the top of the British newspaper market, even as its proprietor fights to limit the damage caused by the long-running phone hacking scandal. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
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