Perils of regulation

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SummaryThe Leveson report could set the British press on the road to state control

A free press that is able to operate without fear or favour remains an essential cornerstone of a modern democratic society. It plays a fundamental role as the guardian of public interest. By the same token, when certain deficiencies in its role become apparent, public and political furore is inevitable. So it came to pass in Britain, where public anger emanating from a single action — the hacking of the mobile phone of a murdered teenager — sparked off the wide-ranging Leveson inquiry, which examined the culture, practices and ethics of the press.

The recent publication of the inquiry’s report represents a watershed moment for the British press. It has ignited a passionate debate over the appropriate model of press regulation, which ought to resonate beyond Britain. Some degree of reform to press regulation in Britain will be unavoidable as a mechanism for independent oversight must be devised. Yet the potential incursion of the state into this domain would mark a slippery slope toward statutory control and interference that deserves to be firmly resisted. It would be far better for the industry to swiftly reach a consensus on shaping a genuinely independent, self-regulatory model.

At the outset, it’s worth highlighting that Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry was a model of process and transparency. The inquiry’s voluminous report of approximately 2,000 pages encompassed nine months of hearings. Almost all of the evidence is and has been available to watch, and daily transcripts have also been published online. The inquiry represented the most concentrated review of the press that Britain has experienced.

Its scrupulous examination of the facts has elicited a general agreement among the victims of press malfeasance and the advocates of press freedom that regulation of the press needs to be reconfigured. The inquiry exposed the shortcomings of

the current structure, in which the Press Complaints Commission, despite having held itself up as a regulator, was no more than an ineffectual body that handled complaints and lacked independence.

Accordingly, the Leveson report recommends the establishment of a genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation. It suggests that an independent regulatory body be established, with the dual role of promoting high standards of journalism and protecting the rights of individuals. In order to ensure independence, it proposes that the board and chair of the regulatory body all be appointed through fair and open processes. The board should comprise a majority that is independent of the press

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