There is a real problem with the media that requires real change.

As Lord Justice Leveson said recently in a speech:

The Right Honourable Lord Justice LevesonThe Right Honourable Lord Justice Leveson

“The press operating freely and in the public interest is one of the true safeguards of our democracy. As a result it holds a privileged and powerful place in our society. But this power and influence carries with it responsibility to the public interest in whose name it exercises these privileges. Unfortunately, as the evidence has shown beyond doubt on too many occasions, those responsibilities along with the editors’ code of conduct, which the press wrote and promoted, have simply been ignored.This has damaged the public interest, caused real hardship and on occasion wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people.”

Lord Leveson also acknowledges that there are numerous examples of great journalism and great investigations by the press that serve the public interest. He talks about how a free press in a democracy ‘hold powers to account’ but how the UK press has not performed that vital role in the case of its own power. He further states:

“I know of no organised profession, industry or trade in which the serious failings of the few are overlooked or ignored because of the good done by the many. Were it so in any other case the press would be the very first to expose such practices.”

Below we provide a few examples in relation to the Australian and UK press that show:

  1. There is a recognised problem with the media’s abuse of power and it is not new.
  2. In the last 70+ years, there have been numerous government commissioned reports on media accountability.
  3. In 2012 alone, three extensive media reviews commissioned by the Australian and UK Governments delivered their recommendations.
  4. Every recent report agrees that the current systems of self-regulation for the press do not work.
  5. To date no government has done what is needed and implemented the recommendations from their own commissioned experts.

There is a recognised problem with the media and it is not new

Hacked Off is a not-for-profit company in the UK which campaigns for a free and accountable press and to defend the victims of press abuse. They have published many informative articles to date, simply and plainly describing the extent of the problem.

One such article “No More Last Chances” states: “Over the past 65 years the press has been given a succession of last chances to make self-regulation work. It has wasted them all, harming thousands of innocent people, provoking crisis after crisis and inquiry after inquiry.”

It then lists details of events including several Royal Commissions in 1953, 1962, 1977, 1990, 1993, 2011 and of course the Leveson Report which came out in November 2012.

The clearly established pattern is that periodically the public outrage escalates to such a point that it captures the attention of the government of the day. At that point, the politicians feel they have to be shown to be doing something – so they commission a report.

Three extensive media reviews delivered in 2012

Looking at Australia and the United Kingdom, 2012 saw three such government commissioned reports delivered, namely the Finkelstein Report and Convergence Review in Australia, along with the Leveson Report in the UK.

Lord Justice Leveson and The Honourable R Finkelstein QC carried out in-depth investigations, took numerous submissions and wrote their detailed reports with courage, dignity and integrity. Below are more details and links to these reports:

Finkelstein Report – published in Australia on 28th February 2012

The Hon R Finkelstein QCThe Hon R Finkelstein QC

This comprehensive 474 page report prepared by the Hon Ray Finkelstein QC with the assistance of Professor M Ricketson fully focused on media and media regulation. It was requested by the Australian Government in September 2011. The terms of reference for the report included the effectiveness of the current media codes of practice, impact of technological change, ways of strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council and issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to the regulations, codes of practice and the public interest.

Convergence Review – published in Australia on 30th March 2012

The Australian Government requested this review in March 2011. The brief was to undertake a review of Australia’s media and communication policy framework.

The final report consists of 198 pages, and covered a broad range of topics.  It therefore, carries less weight in relation to media accountability than the Finkelstein Report.

Leveson Report  - published in England on 29th November 2012

The UK Prime Minister the Rt Hon David Cameron commissioned an Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press in 2 parts.

In November 2012, the Rt Hon Lord Justice Brian Leveson delivered Part 1, which ran to four volumes. It is not known when Part 2 can be undertaken or completed as the subject matter could prejudice ongoing criminal investigations.

Lord Leveson commenced the executive summary of his report with the following paragraph:

“For the seventh time in less than 70 years, a report has been commissioned by the Government which has dealt with concerns about the press.

It was sparked by public revulsion about a single action – the hacking of the mobile phone of a murdered teenager. From that beginning, the scope of the Inquiry was expanded to cover the culture, practices and ethics of the press in its relations with the public, with the police, with politicians and, as to the police and politicians, the conduct of each. It carries with it authority provided personally by the Prime Minister. It requires me to consider the extent to which there was a failure to act on previous warnings as to the conduct of the press, the way in which the press has been regulated (if it has) and, in any event, how regulation should work in the future.”

Clearly, the recommendations made by Leveson and Finkelstein warrant not only review, but responsibly considered action and implementation.  Or do we want to wait for yet more harm, yet another round of public outcry, and yet another series of government commissioned reports?

Self-regulation for the press does not work – recommended changes

There is a clear consensus that the current systems of voluntary self-regulation do not work. Each report has provided extensive details of how and why these systems fail us.

However, self-regulation is what is favoured by the media and time after time the government of the day has continued to allow this deeply flawed approach. Yes, at times there have been minor modifications, but in essence there has been no real change.

We as a community need to consider different solutions than those previously implemented. Both Finkelstein and Leveson (though there are differences) propose a new framework.

Finkelstein recommends and provides comprehensive details of how a fully independent and adequately funded “News Media Council” would be set up, work, act swiftly and have the power to enforce its decisions.

Leveson recommends an independent self-regulatory body governed by an independent board. He provides details on how this system would be set up in a “fully open, transparent and independent way, without any influence from Industry or Government”. His recommendations provide powers to the board to direct remedial action, apologies and sanctions but not to prevent publication of any material.

Both Finkelstein and Leveson go to great lengths to ensure that true freedom of the press is preserved but that there should still be accountability.

Indeed, were there not accountability in any other industry or public body, the press would be the first to point this out and complain.

Why has the Government not acted on the recommendations?

Historically, governments have not taken the required steps to implement those parts of their media reviews that create real and necessary change.

Are the governments too afraid of the media backlash?

Does the media hold the ‘perceived power’ and are they abusing it?

The press have certainly run campaigns of misinformation and manipulation in order to minimise the chances of important recommendations being acted upon.  Their main strategy is to claim that regulation is ‘an assault on Freedom of Speech’. RMRC wrote about this very point in the article Freedom of the Press – a pressing issue.

As stated above, the media reviews clearly acknowledge the importance of responsible freedom of speech and provide recommendations that in no way compromise it.

In July 2012, David Cameron the UK Prime Minister gave a speech (full text of PM speech) on these matters. Two excerpts from that speech:

“Press freedom does not mean that the press should be above the law. Yes, there is much excellent journalism in Britain today. But I think it’s now clear to everyone that the way the press is regulated today is not working. Let’s be honest: the Press Complaints Commission has failed.”

and

“The truth is, we have all been in this together – the press, politicians and leaders of all parties – and yes, that includes me. We have not gripped this issue. During the last government, a police investigation was undertaken, it was inadequate and not enough was done. There were reports from the information commissioner and they went unheeded. There were select committee reports on phone hacking and there was no follow-up.

Throughout all this, all the warnings, all the concern, the government at the time did nothing. And frankly, neither did the opposition.

To be fair, it is difficult for politicians to call for more regulation of the media, because if we do so, we’re accused of wanting to stifle a free press or even free speech.

But the deeper truth is this: there is a less noble reason.

Because party leaders were so keen to win the support of newspapers, we turned a blind eye to the need to sort this issue, get on top of the bad practices, to change the way our newspapers are regulated.

It’s a bit like MPs’ expenses.

The people in power knew things weren’t right.

But they didn’t do enough quickly enough – until the full mess of the situation was revealed. Now, when the scandal hits and the truth is plain for everyone to see … there are two choices. You can downplay it and deny the problem is deep – or you can accept the seriousness of the situation and deal with it.

I want to deal with it.

These inquiries give us a chance for a fresh start and I want us to take it.

Four months after that speech David Cameron was doing whatever he could to not implement the core recommendation of the Leveson Inquiry.

It is not too late for Real Change.

Neither government has yet provided a definitive response to the recommendations from their recent reviews.

Leveson and Finkelstein have clearly and honourably delivered their thorough, well-considered, well-researched and well-presented recommendations.

The respective governments now have all the information they need to enact meaningful and real change – change and legislation that has been called for repeatedly in regards to truly serving the public interest.  The accountability of the media requires addressing.  One cannot question this.  And so we see the real question that (once again) emerges:  Will our politicians stand up for what is needed on behalf of the people they purport to serve?