Freedom of the press

Democracy in danger: Would new laws kill off investigative journalism such as the story above?

Next week the government will be faced with a crucial decision: whether to go ahead with the second phase of an inquiry into British newspapers. Might this mean the end of true journalism?

  • Not another Leveson inquiry?

    Technically, this would be the second part of the first inquiry which was published in 2012. The Leveson report reviewed the culture and ethics of the British media. Part two would investigate its relationship with police and public officials.

  • When did this all start?

    In 2007, when the News of the World was first convicted of phone-hacking: the illegal interception of phone messages. The paper said that this was an isolated incident, but another newspaper, The Guardian, claimed there was evidence that the practice extended beyond the two men initially convicted.

    The Guardian was right. In 2011 it revealed that the News of the World had also hacked the voicemail of murder victim Milly Dowler. David Cameron then announced that a public inquiry would take place, chaired by Lord Leveson.

    The inquiry heard from many celebrities who complained of media intrusion. In the report, Leveson found that the Press Complaints Commission, an independent regulatory body for newspapers and magazines, had failed to prevent phone-hacking and needed to be replaced.

  • What is replacing it?

    One government-approved candidate is a group called Impress, funded by Max Mosley, the millionaire former president of FIA and a foe of the tabloid press. If successful, this means that Britain would have its first official state-backed press regulator since the end of Crown licensing in 1695.

    No major newspaper is signed up to Impress; many are affiliated to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), while others, such as The Guardian and the Evening Standard are regulated in-house.

  • Will newspapers have to sign up?

    No, but this is where things get interesting, and where we come to Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 — an act of parliament passed in response to the Leveson report.

    The current presumption in civil law cases is that whoever loses pays the legal fees. So if a paper is sued for libel and wins, the complainant has to pay both sides’ legal cost. But Section 40, which is yet to be implemented, states that unless a publication is a paid up member of Impress, it will have to pay both sides’ legal costs even if it wins.

  • Shouldn’t they just join it then?

    That is what Max Mosley and Hacked Off — the campaign group who initially called for an inquiry into press behaviour — think. They see it as a legitimate form of insurance: if, for example, you are worried about household objects breaking or being stolen, then the answer is obvious: buy home insurance, and accept the terms of that insurance.

    Supporters of Section 40 say that the press’s behaviour in the past has been bad enough to warrant some state intervention: it does not represent ‘the end of freedom of speech’.

  • But the press do not agree?

    Certainly not. The proposals have prompted a torrent of rage from journalists; for example, writing in The Sunday Times, Mick Hume said that the new law would ‘close down newspapers for telling the truth and freeze investigative journalism’. The Conservative MP Dominic Raab wrote in The Telegraph that implementing Section 40 would ‘undermine democracy’.

    The great fear in the media is that newspaper investigations such as those which have exposed official failures over child abuse or brought criminals to justice simply would not be worth the financial risk under the proposed changes. For the press, this is a fight for real journalism.

You Decide

  1. ‘Freedom of the press is the most important sign of a civilised society.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Write your own ‘code of ethics’ for the press. Keep it simple: a short list of five to ten ‘golden rules’ that you think all journalists should obey.

Word Watch

News of the World
National Sunday tabloid, sister paper of the Sun. It closed in 2011 because of the hacking scandal.
Two men
News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator.
Milly Dowler
Her killer, Levi Bellfield, already serving life for other murders, was convicted in 2011 of the murder in 2002 of the 13-year-old from Surrey.
Celebrities
One, the actress Sienna Miller, was awarded £100,000 in damages from the News of the World after it admitted hacking her phone. She told the Leveson inquiry: ‘I would often find myself … at midnight running down a dark street on my own with 10 big men with cameras chasing me.’
FIA
Federation Internationale de l’Automobile: a body that represents the interests of motoring organisations and car users.
Civil law
In countries with common law, such as the UK and the USA, civil law refers to non-criminal law, such as disputes involving property and contracts.
Hacked Off
A campaign group of those concerned by phone-hacking. Supported by numerous celebrities, its leading spokesperson is the actor Hugh Grant.

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Freedom of the press
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