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Media

Leveson inquiry asks who guards the guardians

The Leveson report confirmed that freedom of the press is vital to democracy, but that the press must be regulated by an independent body. So how free will the press really be? And who guards the guardians?

After 16 months, Lord Justice Leveson's report was published amid fevered speculation on how much he wanted to curtail freedom of the press. He called for much tougher regulations, but he also reiterated that freedom of the press is vital to a functioning democracy.

Politicians' reaction

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron leaves the High Court in London after giving evidence at the Leveson media ethics inquiry, (Photo:Alastair Grant/AP/dapd)

Prime Minister David Cameron has 'some misgivings'

Prime Minister David Cameron said while he wanted to implement many of the recommendations he had "serious concerns and misgivings" over the idea of statutory regulation, warning that enshrining the power of an independent regulatory body in law, could have the effect of "crossing the Rubicon." Writing elements of press regulation into law, he said, had the potential to "infringe on free speech."

 Ed Miliband, Britain's Labour party leader, poses for photographers as he arrives to give evidence to the Leveson inquiry (Photo:Lefteris Pitarakis, File/AP/dapd)

Leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband supports the report's findings

Leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, was more wholehearted in his support of Leveson, urging Cameron, and the rest of the house, to "adopt every recommendation." Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal party, sided with Miliband, in a move that led many people to question the strength of the coalition. He said that it would be "difficult to find a better solution than the one that has been proposed." He ended by saying that the victims of the press needed to be heard, and to be given justice.

An independent regulatory body is needed

Acknowledging that this inquiry was "the eighth in 70 years" looking at how the press should work in the UK, Leveson said his work had been sparked by "public revulsion at the hacking of a mobile phone of a murdered teenager" namely the phone of Milly Dowler, whose parents gave evidence at the inquiry. But Leveson expanded far beyond the initial scope and went on to recommended a tougher form of self regulation backed by legislation; which "was not, and should not be read as, statutory regulation." He felt this regulating authority should be "independent of industry leaders, politicians and government," and would be made up of people appointed by a separate committee.

Reactions

Immediately after publication, public opinion seemed positive, described as "thorough and carefully considered." Perhaps because, like Transparency International's director of external affairs, Robert Barrington, everyone acknowledged the need for change.

"It is inevitable that the discredited system of self-interested and toothless self-regulation must change," Barrington said.

Jacqui James, from the Hacked Off campaign, which helped bring about the Leveson inquiry, said, "The crucial point is the importance he places on the complete independence of regulation from politicians and from the editors and proprietors, who run the wholly discredited PCC [press complaints commission]."

A dangerous precedent?

But other newspapers, notably the Barclay brothers-owned, Spectator's leader on Thursday wrote: "Today, laws intended to stop the worst excesses of the tabloids could end by exerting a chilling effect on the rest of press."

The papers sounded a warning bell by writing, "Once parliament has granted itself such powers, it can be counted on to expand them later." They cautioned, "To join any scheme which subordinates press to parliament would be a betrayal of what this paper has stood for since its inception in 1828."

Claire Fox, the director of UK think tank the Institute of Ideas, praised the Spectator's stance and said enshrining press freedom in law was a "retrograde step." She criticized politicians like Miliband who "did a roll call of the victims [of the press] in their speeches" believing they had missed the point entirely, and said she felt that Leveson in saying that the press was incapable of self regulation was essentially saying they were also ineffectual at doing what they've been exhorted to do, namely, be the lifeblood of a functioning democracy.

 A still image from broadcast footage shows former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks giving evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics and practices of the media at the High Court in central London May 11, 2012. (PHOTO. REUTERS/POOL via Reuters TV9)

Reporting by Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World, partly sparked the inquriy.

Arguing that press laws need to be rewritten to stop unacceptable behavior is the wrong way to tackle things, Chris Blackhurst, editor of the Independent newspaper in the UK, told the BBC on Thursday, "There are already laws against bank robbery, but that doesn't mean [bank robberies] don't take place."

How free is free?

The logo of the British tabloid 'The Sun' outside News International headquarters in Wapping, London, Britain. Photo: EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA )

The Sun, another News International owned tabloid.

Fox told DW that the idea of appointing independent officials did not guarantee freedom, because "who are these people? And who appoints them?" She added that the inquiry "has already had a chilling impact on the press feeling nervous about what it can and can't say." And that the result of inquiries like these is to "create an even more fetid atmosphere of people watching their backs," which doesn't seem to suggest the "vital, vibrant and strong free press" that Leveson and politicians say they want.

Who guards the guardians?

At the end of his speech, Leveson said he would make no further comment as his report would "speak for itself." The ball, he said, was now "in the politicians court" and it was for them to decide and ask the question "who guards the guardians?" But the politicians meanwhile, can't agree, victims of the press call for more protection, and the press themselves oscillate between wanting new regulation and power and fearing that any formalization of their role will curtail their freedom for the future.