Freedom of the press

Lord Justice Leveson.
Lord Justice Leveson.
The recommendations from Lord Justice Leveson's 16-month inquiry into the ''culture, practice and ethics of the press'', released last week, have opened a Pandora's box in terms of fears over the issue of press freedom.

Lord Leveson's inquiry was commissioned by the British Government following public uproar after revelations of phone hacking by the News of the World into the mobile phone of a murdered teenager. Its scope was expanded to cover the conduct not just of News International but the press in general in its relations with the public, police and politicians - as well as the conduct of the latter two organisations - making it the most comprehensive investigation into the press in British history. Lord Leveson was tasked with exposing current practices and regulations and making recommendations for change.

His major recommendation is to establish a ''genuinely independent [from Government and industry] and effective system of self-regulation'' with the ''dual roles of promoting high standards of journalism and protecting the rights of individuals''.

In summary, he recommends the independent body set standards through a code, and in relation to governance and compliance - including the power to require prominent apologies and impose fines of up to £1 million ($NZ1.95 million).

The recommendations are comprehensive and promote accountability and transparency but have caused consternation from industry players and the legal and human rights fraternities about press freedoms, particularly given Lord Leveson's finding that legislation is ''essential'' to ''underpin the independent self-regulatory system and facilitate its recognition in legal processes''.

Lord Leveson obviously foresaw the opposition, acknowledging in his report that some would describe it ''as the most controversial part of my recommendations''.

He goes to pains to explain his recommendation, saying:

''This is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press. What is proposed here is independent regulation of the press organised by the press, with a statutory verification process to ensure that the required levels of independence and effectiveness are met by the system in order for publishers to take advantage of the benefits arising as a result of membership."

He said the legislation ''should also place an explicit duty on the Government to uphold and protect the freedom of the press''.

The British Government is divided about the recommendations. It must be remembered the unacceptable practices related, as Lord Leveson himself says, only to ''some titles for some of the time'' and it was in fact other media which exposed the scandals - for instance The Guardian in relation to the News of the World phone hacking.

Lord Leveson's recommendations have great resonance further afield. Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of any true democracy, and one on which New Zealanders, for instance, pride themselves.

Similar discussions are currently being carried out here. The Law Commission is reviewing the news media environment in the digital age, and is considering proposing the establishment of a new press regulator, which could also be recognised by statute.

Some of the proposals outlined in the Law Commission's original paper are seen by many as a slippery slope. After all, New Zealand's current industry regulators, the Press Council and Broadcasting Standards Authority, already offer appropriate means for redress, and there are, of course, laws governing what is legally allowable.

The New Zealand review is welcome. For there is no doubt that with rights come great responsibility. But responsible publishers already strive to adhere to the industry's high standards of accuracy, fairness and balance; they respect individuals' right to privacy; and are committed to the public interest, transparency and decency. Publishers face the harshest critics of all - the public - who demand trust, accountability and high ethical standards, and ultimately determine the very survival of media organisations.

The now-defunct News of the World - and the charges against some of its former executives - is the perfect illustration of that.