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
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,
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
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.