Leveson Comment

Ian Beales, long-standing Secretary to the UK Editors’ Code Committee and a Trustee of the CPU Media Trust, considers the implications for the Commonwealth press in the long anticipated report by Lord Justice Leveson.

19 November 2012

LORD Justice Leveson is certainly making the UK media sweat. After his £4m, year-long inquiry into the culture, ethics and practice of the press, there is still no firm clue to his verdict or even to when it will be delivered.

We do, though, have one perhaps revealing diary date. On December 7, Lord Justice Leveson will rise before an audience of lawyers, editors and media commentators to pronounce on privacy and the press in the 21stcentury. But not in his familiar Court 73 in the Strand.

Instead, he will be in Sydney. His audience will not be British, but Australian. And he will be there with star billing at an exclusive legal seminar because Australia’s press, politicians and lawyers have been following his UK inquiry minutely. The future shape of their press freedom could depend on it, too – and they are not alone.

The eyes of the world’s media have been on Leveson from the start. Editors, publishers, lawyers and, inevitably, politicians – particularly in the Commonwealth, where, in theory at least, a legacy of British-style legal systems have protected freedom of expression – have watched with mixed emotions as the inquiry progressed.

At its heart is the question of whether the UK press should be self-regulated, or subject to statutory regulation for the first time in 300 years. By the time Sir Brian Leveson addresses his Sydney audience, we should know his decision, expected by the end of this month.  We may not, of course, know by then the Government’s verdict on his recommendation.

But of one thing we may be certain: if Leveson does recommend statutory controls for the UK, a chill will go through the world’s media – matched by a warm glow in the ministries of some of the most illiberal regimes around the globe.

For one of the issues barely, if at all, addressed at the Leveson Inquiry is the appalling message a British decision to introduce any statutory regulation of the press would send out internationally. It would be taken as a signal that legal controls on media freedom were a legitimate instrument of governments everywhere.  It would be likely to set off a domino effect around the Commonwealth and beyond. Statutory controls on the press could quickly become the norm.

It is already on international political agendas.

The very fact of Lord Justice Leveson’s planned appearance in Sydney just days after his report is published is significant.  For, just weeks after David Cameron announced the Leveson inquiry, a parallel inquiry was set up in Australia, led by retired Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein.

His report included recommendations of simpler media codes of practice, setting out greater sensitivity to the needs of vulnerable people – and introduced the novel, and seemingly oxymoronic, concept of  “enforced self-regulation.

The existing voluntary Australian Press Council would make way for a non-voluntary News Media Council, which would also take over the functions of the co-regulatory Australian Communications and Media Authority to set out the standards across the whole media, embracing print, broadcasting and online.

It would not, said Finkelstein, be full government regulation, but would require the media to participate in the setting and enforcement of standards.  A failure to participate could lead to court appearances, and ultimately – for refusenik editors and publishers – trigger contempt proceedings ending in fines or jail terms.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, another inquiry – set up ahead of Leveson to consider issues of convergence – swiftly adapted to shadow the UK issues. Like Finkelstein, it recommended replacing existing press and broadcasting councils with a single media council with statutory back-up.  It too quoted the now-familiar arguments put forward by organisations such as Britain’s Media Standards Trust, which soothingly play down the risks of statutory intervention, by suggesting it would be “just a dab of statute.”

Neither Australia nor New Zealand has been led to this by the pretext of egregious press behaviour such as the phone-hacking that triggered the Leveson Inquiry. Yet, for whatever reason, they saw this as an opportunity to be seized, as do many British politicians. Clearly, they have impacted one on the other, without due regard for the consequences internationally.  It has the makings of a perfect storm.

For, if mature and established democracies such as Australia and New Zealand are prepared to consider statutory controls and if, in Britain, the Mother of Parliaments were ever to lead the way, it would be open season.  What further excuse would dictators and authoritarian governments around the globe need to follow suit? What would the Robert Mugabes of this world make of it?

And, where would it leave the press in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean? Would the Media Standard Trust’s narcotic reassurances of just a ‘dab of statute’ help them to sleep easier at night?

Ask the man whom Peter Preston, former editor of the Guardian, calls “my hero”. Fred M’membe’s legendary editorship of the Zambia Post, has landed him in jail more times than he can remember – the most recent, a long weekend earlier this year for an unfounded allegation of criminal defamation.  If Britain introduced statutory press controls, he says, “it would spread through Africa like a firestorm.”

Listen to Jethro Goko, a director of the Daily News, Zimbabwe, a title recently reborn after years of closure by Mugabe’s regime: “Many of the publishers and editors on the African continent that I’ve discussed this unimaginable possibility with worry that if the UK does ill-advisedly take this route, it will be like manna from heaven for all the dictatorial regimes of the world…Indeed, I can only imagine the unrestrained joy that some people around President Robert Mugabe would derive from such a backward step in the UK … if gold rusts, what about iron!”

Or Raymond Louw, former South African editor, and celebrated international campaigner for press freedom:“ Dictatorial governments would leap at anything repressive enacted in Britain as justifying their conduct.”

Or Ephraim Banda Ghogomu, former senior executive of Cameroon State TV: “ Such action would not only lend legitimacy to Cameroon’s feet-dragging attitude toward a possible good Freedom of Information Act, but lead the way to a sorry situation of over-regulation by government to further tighten the screws on the press in Cameroon, using ‘luminary’ Britain as the good example.”

But, of course, the effects would not be confined to Africa.

Sinha Ratnatunga, Editor of the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka, says: “The one argument we have had, that the modern liberal democracies around the world have self-regulation rather than statutory laws for the media, will fall down. It will strengthen the hand of oppressive, regressive governments, like ours for instance.”

And in the Caribbean,Tony Mcwilliam, Editor-in-chief of the Bermuda Sun, and chairman of the Media Working Group that, in the face of government opposition, set up the self-regulatory Media Council of Bermuda in 2010, is unequivocal:   “If freedom of the press was undermined — or seen to be in danger, of being undermined — by statutory regulation in the UK, it would surely not be an isolated incident; sooner or later, we would feel its negative repercussions here in Bermuda.”

Their views are echoed throughout the Commonwealth and around the world, where journalists already subject to tight constraints could become defenceless victims of the perfect storm now gathering over press regulation in London, Canberra and Wellington.

None of the three governments in this triangle is yet irreversibly committed to such a course. The Australian Government, faced with upcoming elections, is now believed to be moving away from Finkelstein and towards giving the Australian Press Council three years to prove that a new, tougher form of self-regulation could be made to work.

Inevitably, in Australia they are already dubbing this the ‘Last Chance Saloon’. There need be no shame in that. By most tests, the British Press has been in the Last Chance Saloon for 300 years. It is perhaps the true spiritual home of any brand of robust, outspoken journalism: living on the edge, pushing at the boundaries, questioning authority, exposing wrongdoing.

Phone hacking, and all that went with it, was unforgiveable: a shameful stain on the British press, which tarnished a proud reputation. But it would be an even greater and more lasting shame if, as a consequence, great modern states seized on this as an opportunity to introduce legislation that, ultimately, would hobble not only their own media, but courageous journalism around the globe.  It would be as disproportionate in the short-term as it would be short-sighted in the long.

History would be unforgiving. It would be a solution that would gnaw at the conscience of democracy for decades.