Editorial: Censoring the media

16:00, Dec 02 2012

The British tabloid press at its worst has never been a pretty thing to contemplate.

Hyper-competitive, unscrupulous, concerned more to get something that might be tricked up as a "scoop" no matter who got trampled on in the process, its unlovely ways have often been deplored. When British Prime Minister David Cameron appointed a Court of Appeal judge, Lord Justice Leveson, to conduct an inquiry into the operation of newspapers and to suggest how they might be better regulated, it was the seventh inquiry in 70 years to traverse much the same ground. When the inquiry was set up the papers' reputation could hardly have been lower and nine months of hearings, in which some 337 witnesses were heard and 300 more gave statements, have done nothing to improve it. Despite all that, Leveson's principal recommendation, for tougher regulation supported by law, is unlikely to be acted upon, and for very good reason.

The immediate impulse for the inquiry was the uproar that ensued when it was reported that journalists from the tabloid News of the World had deleted voicemail messages from the cellphone of a missing schoolgirl, giving rise to a false hope that she might still be alive when in fact she was by then dead. As soon emerged, the voicemails were in fact probably deleted by the police as part of their investigation into the girl's disappearance. Nevertheless, the outcry against newspapers already in low repute was so great some sort of inquiry was unavoidable. From that slightly dodgy start, the inquiry ranged widely over not only the excesses of the tabloids but also contact between the press and the police, relations between newspapers and politicians, and much else besides.

At the end of it all, Leveson found one of the central allegations that had been made - that Cameron had become too cosy with the Murdoch empire and had tailored policy to suit it - was not made out. He further found much of the press excellent. But the judge also found Britain's system of newspaper self-regulation weak and inadequate and he proposed a new, much stronger one, ostensibly independent and voluntary but in fact coercive, with powers to fine heavily and, most crucially, backed by statute.

During the hearings Leveson got tetchy when a senior government minister gave him a mini-lecture on the importance of press freedom, and how easily imperilled it was, but it seems some such lesson was needed.

Direct state control over newspapers has not existed in England for more than 300 years. The idea of putting at risk the hard-won freedoms developed over centuries because of the excesses of a few tabloids is rightly regarded as anathema. To his credit, Cameron immediately spotted the dangers and while accepting Leveson's findings, he has rejected that part of his report. A strong and effective regulatory body is undoubtedly needed, but not one established by the state, no matter how far removed from the immediate grasp of politicians. The practically inevitable risk of further political meddling is too great.

New Zealand does not have the tabloid rabble that London does. It is also fortunate in having in the Press Council an effective body to deal with complaints. A few months ago, though, the Law Commission, fretting about alleged problems with the web, proposed a new statutory body to regulate all media. It is not a good idea, nor is it necessary, and with luck it will go no further.


The Press