Editorial: Watching the watchdog

Last updated 05:00 01/12/2012

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OPINION: Lord Justice Leveson wants a new independent media regulator in Britain. Whereupon a nation rises and says amen. But then it gets sticky.

The man whose inquiry into media practices was a necessary political response to public abhorrence at gutter-press excesses wants the new watchdog's status and role to be backed up with new laws. "This is not, and cannot reasonably or fairly be characterised as statutory regulation of the press," he says. Plenty of media voices will have a damned good try at casting it as exactly that.

And not just them. Prime Minister David Cameron has declared himself wary of writing press regulation into law, although his coalition partner, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, joins the Opposition Labour Party backing the report in totality.

By any standard, the self-regulation model that has been reliant on the soon-to-be-euthanised poodle the Press Complaints Commission has been an abject failure, due in no small part to the indolence of the greater part of the media whom Lord Leveson casts as innocent of malice, but guilty of the laziness or timidity of failing to apply their so-called watchdog role to their own industry.

It will not be an easy task for Mr Cameron to convince his electorate that to create a body of far greater effectiveness than the discredited complaints commission does not really take new law. Particularly since the Justice Leveson himself is adamant that it does.

That said, and given that his report also highlights an unhealthily cosy relationship between the press and politicians, it might even be argued that the less lawmakers have to do with the new watchdog, the better. And the British public will surely seize upon one of the recommendations, that political leaders consider publishing what their policy will be in conducting relationships with the press.

Quite apart from which side of the argument would prevail under dispassionate consideration, the fact remains that this is not a dispassionate situation. So nauseating have been the excesses of phone-hacking, bribery, and what Leveson calls "dark-arts" dealmaking between media, politicians and police, there is a scarcely surprising public ache for something that passes muster on an emotional level as a fitting punishment for the bastardry. Which means something that goes far enough that the squeals of the media seem gratifyingly pained.

Central to Lord Leveson's findings is that the media has held others to account, but not itself.

But things change. The exposures of recent years have sensitised the public, big-time, to media untrustworthiness. Suspicion of press behaviour is justifiably high and will itself provide a market for those - and they are now legion - who are up for scrutinising media conduct from outside the mainstream as well as within within it.

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Bear in mind, though, that a great deal of the misbehaviour that has so shocked the nation is already flat-out illegal. The problem was that so much criminality wasn't being exposed. But now criminal charges are being brought against hackers. Police officers and the press who bribe them to release information illegally can expect to hold hands in the dock if they're exposed.

The Leveson watchdog's role must be to step in against activities that are not themselves criminal, but are still intolerable even by robust press freedom standards. Whether new law is necessary in that context is a question that can be assessed only when we are a great deal more clear on what, exactly, that law would cover. Only then could its necessity be either accepted or rejected out of hand.

- The Southland Times

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