Leveson Inquiry threatens press freedom we take for granted

I got a call from a friend, Gebran, in June 2004. His request was for me to go over to his company in Lebanon to advise them on a critical strategic issue. My initial response was 'no'.

Our family yacht was provisioned for an eight-week trip the following day. But Gebran was a good friend, and persuasive, and my wife agreed that making time for him was important … so the family holiday was rearranged.

I arrived a fortnight after the assassination of President Hariri to stay, ironically, a couple of hundred metres from where he had been blown up.

On the last day in Beirut I went to meet Gebran, his brother and cousin for lunch. His brother explained that there was a security issue and that Gebran had had to leave the country.

Gebran and I met the following September in Paris. He was looking forward to going home. He returned to Lebanon the following January and within days, to quote award-winning journalist Robert Fisk in The Independent, he was “blown to smithereens”.

What a price to pay in the name of press freedom.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, Australia and most of the “western world” we have taken the values of press freedom for granted for too long … and now we’re paying the price.

The phone-hacking scandal in the UK has gripped the global news community’s attention. In part for reasons I’ve never quite understood, our global industry is obsessed with what happens in London and New York, at the ignorance of the richness of ideas and initiatives taking place in non-anglophone countries.

Why? Because it is potentially creating precedents that are unacceptable in a mature society and sending seriously bad signals to countries with non-emerging or fragile democracies.

‘The key point that the Leveson Inquiry has shown is that any of the issues raised were already covered by UK law. The fact is the law-enforcers not only chose to ignore it, but to brush it aside because of secondary agendas’

Anything other than an unfettered free press is intolerable in today’s society in any country a threat to democracy.

Before I return to the international context, it is worth summarising the scandal that has engulfed the UK newspaper industry and others.

When the story first story broke about the issue it was largely ignored. The temperature only rose around a story that a murdered girl’s phone had been hacked, and messages deleted, raising her parents hopes that she was alive.

By this time, something that had been regarded benign among many news-media owners and politicians was suddenly rampant. The Leveson Inquiry was established and the press have been pillared ever since and could well be statutorily regulated as a consequence.

Except that the accusation regarding the murdered girl’s phone being hacked turned out to be incorrect. The message deleting was a function of the operator, not a hacker. In addition the phone hacking has been largely confined to one company, News Corp, and within that a tiny group of miscreants (though some it may be found are very senior).

To include in the mix is the fact that the police knew phones were being hacked and chose to do nothing about it. It now emerges that a number of police were accepting payments for stories. Additionally, politicians showed a bias to media owners and sought favours.

In any commercial world, one would expect Rupert Murdoch and any other serious entrepreneur to push their position as hard as they can. Murdoch cannot be blamed for that.

But the UK’s situation has demonstrated that alongside a few misguided journalists, their accomplices include the police officers accused of accepting payments and politicians who openly romanced with the news media … when they, at the very least, should have been more circumspect.

The reality is that the Leveson Inquiry was a consequence of police and politicians failing to act, a misinterpretation of a single case – which because of the misplaced, but revered nostalgia toward the UK press, has created massive interest and sign on.

Every aspect of this case is already covered by UK legislation, that the bodies responsible for its enforcement chose to ignore, for what we now realise was an issue of their self-promotion.

As a result, the entire system for press regulation – which everyone knows needs reform – is threatened by statutory regulation which is completely counter to world standards regarding press freedom.

Such regulation will cost the industry financially, operationally and culturally at a time when news media in general – not just newspapers, but television, radio, magazines and (dare I say it) newspapers – are struggling to engage society in the big picture.

However, putting the UK’s parochial position aside, what matters is the signal that any UK or any other democratic society sends out to emerging countries that are struggling to create a free press and forum for open social debate.

The key point what the Leveson Inquiry has shown is that any of the issues raised were already covered by UK law. The fact is the law-enforcers not only chose to ignore it, but to brush it aside because of secondary agendas.

A free press can only be underpinned by a robust legal framework that separately covers every other area of social responsibility and law.

In most societies, whether democratic or not, legislation is complex to introduce, but easy to manipulate after the event.

We only have to look at what has happened in Russia, which at one time shone as an opportunity for pluralism and has been convulsed by political manipulation of the news media, including the assassination of honourable, truth-seeking journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, 143 journalists and other media folk were killed in 2012 pursuing the truth. More than 270 others were imprisoned.

Another observation is that while we newspaper folk are brilliant at telling others’ stories, we are extraordinarily poor at telling our own. As an industry we have simply allowed our reporters to report the doom and gloom, rather than treating the crisis in the way that BP or Nestle might and go out with an assertive positive story.

Jim Chisholm is an independent media consultant based in France.

Leave a comment