British press needs new regulator, report says

British press needs new regulator, report says
London:  After interviewing hundreds of witnesses in months of sworn public testimony, a major inquiry into the standards of British newspapers triggered by the phone-hacking scandal on Thursday singled out Rupert Murdoch's defunct tabloid News of the World for specific criticism but offered an excoriating critique of the press as a whole, saying it displayed "significant and reckless disregard for accuracy" that should lead to tighter self-regulation underpinned by law.

"Too many stories in too many newspapers were the subject of complaints from too many people with too little in the way of titles taking responsibility, or considering the consequences for the individuals involved," the head of the inquiry, Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson, said in a 46-page summary of the findings in his long-awaited, 1,987-page report published in four hefty volumes.

Murdoch closed the 168-year-old News of the World in July 2011 as the phone-hacking scandal blossomed into broad public revulsion with reports that the newspaper had ordered the interception of voice mail messages left on the cellphone of Milly Dowler after she was abducted in 2002. She was later found murdered.

Leveson said there had been a "failure of management and compliance" at News of the World, accusing it of a "general lack of respect for individual privacy and dignity."

"It was said that the News of the World had lost its way in relation to phone hacking," the summary said. "Its casual attitude to privacy and the lip service it paid to consent demonstrated a far more general loss of direction."

In the body of the exhaustive report, reprising at length the testimony of many of the witnesses who spoke at the hearings, the document discusses press culture and ethics; explores the press' attitude toward the subjects of its stories; and discusses the cozy relationship between the press and police, and the press and politicians.

The report devotes an entire section to News of the World. Using a number of case studies that came from the testimony of witnesses, it described a newsroom under immense pressure to bring in stories exclusively and quickly, full of journalists with cavalier and sometimes cruel attitudes toward the privacy and feelings of the people they were covering. Leveson said that reporters regularly obtained illegal information about their subjects, harassed and threatened subjects into cooperating, and concealed their identities in pursuit of stories.

Concluding the section on the ethical practices and culture of the news media, Leveson said he recognizes that "most of what the press does is good journalism free from the sort of vices I have had to address at length." But still, he says, "it is essential that the need for a fresh start in press regulation is fully embraced, and a new regime thereafter implemented."

That regulation, the report summary said, should not be viewed as full-blown statutory controls as much as a far more effective form of self-regulation than the current Press Complaints Commission, in which newspapers effectively regulate themselves. He urged the adoption of a new independent regulatory body with powers to fine offending newspapers up to $1.6 million, made up of people who are not serving editors and should not be either lawmakers or figures from the government.

In the report, the judge wrote that his inquiry panel heard from a variety of witnesses who gave examples of how the press had hacked into their phones, followed them, intruded on their privacy, illegally obtained information like their phone numbers and medical records, and made up stories about them.

The treatment of private individuals who became public figures, like the parents of Madeleine McCann, a toddler who disappeared while on a family vacation in Portugal, and Milly Dowler indicates a "a press indifferent to individual privacy and casual in its approach to truth, even when the stories were potentially extremely damaging for the individuals named."

But he balanced those remarks by saying that the problems described by witnesses at the inquiry were not systemic, but "afflict only a section of the press, and even then not for the majority of the time."

Summarizing the evidence the panel heard at the inquiry, the judge described evidence of "cultural indifference within parts of the press to individual privacy and dignity."

He continued: "The broad theme encompasses evidence that parts of the press have used unethical and or unlawful means to access private information, including phone hacking, email hacking, theft and covert surveillance. It also encompasses evidence that newspapers have published obviously confidential information without any public interest in doing so, have harassed subjects of their stories and their families, have been insensitive in investigating and reporting death and tragedy, and have failed to have regard to the high level of protection appropriate to children."

The publication of the report had been closely watched for what it would say about the seemingly intimate relationship between British government figures and the owners of newspapers, particularly Murdoch who, along with his son James, testified in person at the Leveson inquiry.

Leveson said the "overwhelming evidence is that relations between politicians and the press on a day-to-day basis are in robust good health and performing the vital public interest functions of a free press in a vigorous democracy."

But, he went on to say that in other respects, "politicians have conducted themselves in relation to the press in ways that have not served the public interest," had risked "becoming vulnerable to influences which are neither known about nor transparent" and had spent too much time cultivating the press to the detriment of their "public duties."

Much attention was devoted during the months of testimony to text messages, phone calls and social plans made between Prime Minister David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International, the British newspaper subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corp.

Brooks, along with Andy Coulson, a former editor of News of the World and Cameron's former spokesman, are among several people facing criminal charges relating to phone hacking and corruption of public officials which they are both challenging in court.

The report also cited testimony relating to Murdoch's acquisition, with help from the Thatcher government, of The Times and The Sunday Times of London, and of the thwarted effort by News Corp. last year to assume full control of Britain's main satellite broadcaster, BSkyB, by purchasing the shares that it did not already own.

It addressed the hostility of the Murdoch titles toward Prime Minister John Major in the 1990s, which included unwanted intrusions into his private life; the hostility of the Murdoch titles toward Neil Kinnock in the 1992 general election; and the close, mutually beneficial relationship between Prime Minister Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch before Blair's Labour government took power in 1997. The report described how when the current Conservative-led government was in opposition, George Osborne, who is now the chancellor of the exchequer, suggested that Coulson be hired as the party's chief spokesman.

Coulson resigned from News of the World in 2007 when one of his reporters, along with an investigator, was convicted of hacking into phones of members of the royal household. Coulson maintained that he had not been aware of the phone hacking but that, as editor of the paper, he had to take responsibility for it.

"At first glance," the report says, "it might be thought surprising that Mr. Osborne should have made this particular suggestion. As the editor of the News of the World, Mr. Coulson had been responsible for a damaging front page headline about Mr. Osborne: 'Top Tory, Coke, and the Hooker."'

The Leveson inquiry, which was established as the phone-hacking scandal exploded with full force within Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper holdings in July 2011, ran in parallel with police investigations and parliamentary hearings that have riveted Britons, offering a sleazy picture of illicit phone interceptions and cozy relations between the police, private detectives, politicians and the press.

The content of the Leveson inquiry's report has been kept a closely guarded secret. Leveson held the first sessions of testimony in November 2011 and completed them in July. The cost so far has been put by the inquiry at around $6.4 million.

Seen by many as having all the makings of a political bombshell for Cameron, copies of the report were delivered to his office and official residence at 10 Downing Street on Wednesday.

Attitudes toward the fraught question of statutory regulation of the press vary sharply among his dominant Conservative Party, its Liberal Democrat junior coalition and the opposition Labour Party. But the divisions also cross party lines.

A group of 86 lawmakers from both houses of Parliament and all three leading political parties used a letter published in two British newspapers on Wednesday to argue against statutory regulation, saying it would lead to the licensing of newspapers for the first time since the 17th century.

Brooks, Coulson and three other people are both due in court on Thursday for a procedural hearing relating to the corruption charges, Britain's Press Association news agency said.

The personalities involved in the separate police, parliamentary and judicial inquiries overlap.

Murdoch and his son James both appeared before the Leveson inquiry.
© 2012, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: November 29, 2012 19:45 IST

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