friday, 30 november of 2012

Report urges plan to rein in U.K. press

U.K. press

Report urges plan to rein in U.K. press

After an exhaustive examination of British press ethics, a U.K. judge issued a withering assessment of some media practices and urged Parliament to pass a law creating a new voluntary regulatory body for the country's newspapers.

Lord Justice Brian Leveson and his team of lawyers took evidence from more than 600 witnesses—including celebrities, politicians and editors—at the behest of Prime Minister David Cameron, who ordered the judicial probe at the height of News Corp's phone-hacking scandal in July 2011.

The proposals divided the British Parliament, while the country's news outlets largely bristled at the idea of laws tied to regulating the press.

On Thursday, the inquiry published its findings in a 1,987-page report, in which News Corp. Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch and his son, Deputy Chief Operating Officer James Murdoch, were mentioned frequently and at times criticized.

In his report, Mr. Leveson wrote: "There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist. This has caused real hardship and, on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained."

Mr. Leveson recommended that Parliament pass legislation that would officially recognize the new regulatory body and identify a set of requirements it must meet to be considered successful in serving the public.

He recommended the legislation enshrine freedom of the press in British law and suggested that Ofcom, the U.K. communications regulator, ensure the new oversight body's independence and effectiveness.

Mr. Leveson said the press would remain free. "This is not, and cannot reasonably or fairly be characterized as, statutory regulation of the press," Mr. Leveson said in a speech after the report's release.

Participation in the new regulatory system would be voluntary for British newspapers, his report said, though there would be incentives for membership in the form of reduced legal costs in privacy and defamation cases. The new regulator would be run by a board, the majority of whose members, including the chairman, should be "people independent of the press," Mr. Leveson said.

"The ball moves back into the politicians court," Mr. Leveson said at the end of his speech. "They must now decide who guards the guardians."

Some of Mr. Leveson's proposals immediately faced the prospect of being undercut by political disagreement in Parliament.

In a speech to Parliament, Mr. Cameron welcomed the call for a new regulator "with the power to demand upfront apologies and impose million-pound fines," but expressed concern about underpinning the organization in law. "I have some serious concerns and misgivings on this recommendation," he said.

"For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land," Mr. Cameron added.

But Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said Mr. Leveson's proposals should be adopted by Parliament as they stand.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrat party is in a coalition with Mr. Cameron's Conservatives, said his preference was to create a rigorous system without any legislation. But he expressed support for a change in law, saying he saw no better alternative.

The industry felt differently.Adrian Jeakings, president of the U.K. Newspaper Society trade body, said the industry is capable of establishing a "tough new system of independent, accountable press regulation with the power to investigate wrongdoing and levy fines," without new statutes.

"As a company we are keen to play our full part, with others in our industry, in creating a new body that commands the confidence of the public," said Tom Mockridge, chief executive of News International, the U.K. newspaper unit of News Corp. "We believe that this can be achieved without statutory regulation—and welcome the Prime Minister's rejection of that proposal," he said.

In an editorial, the Financial Times commended Mr. Cameron, saying he was right to heed the risks of any state intervention in newspapers.

At a news conference Thursday, the group Hacked Off, which represents phone-hacking victims, celebrities such as actor Hugh Grant, journalism experts and others, urged Mr. Cameron to reconsider his position and support a new British press law. On Twitter, Mr. Grant said victims of privacy invasion felt betrayed by Mr. Cameron.

Mr. Leveson's inquiry, which began hearings last autumn, came in the wake of an uproar over illegal mobile-phone voice-mail hacking and alleged bribes-for-scoops at News Corp.'s British tabloids.

The scandal over the illicit tactics had simmered for almost five years before exploding in July 2011 amid revelations that the News of the World hacked the voice mail of a missing 13-year-old girl who turned out to have been murdered.

The fallout has cost News Corp. hundreds of millions of dollars in legal costs and led to the closure of the News of the World, a raft of criminal and civil cases and the collapse of News Corp.'s multibillion-dollar bid to take full control of British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC.

Mr. Leveson criticized News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch for failing to root out widespread wrongdoing at the News of the World after a reporter and private investigator working for the tabloid were jailed for phone hacking in 2007.

"If News Corporation management, and in particular Rupert Murdoch, were aware of the allegations, it is obvious that action should have been taken to investigate them. If News Corporation were not aware of the allegations…then there would appear to have been a significant failure in corporate governance," the judge wrote.

He also expressed surprise that Mr. Murdoch had not read a key breach-of-privacy ruling against the News of the World in 2008 that deemed the tabloid "guilty not only of practices tantamount to blackmail, but also of casual and cavalier journalism." "That Mr. Murdoch was not apparently familiar with it says something about the degree to which his organisation engages with the ethical direction of its newspapers," Mr. Leveson said. The judge did, however, credit the independent committee that News Corp. set up to deal with wrongdoing for cooperating with police and handing over evidence.

Mr. Leveson's report weighed in on phone hacking, saying: "The evidence drives me to conclude that this was far more than a covert, secret activity, known to nobody save one or two practitioners of the 'dark arts.'"

He added that "there has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected....all the while heedless of the public interest."

Mr. Leveson said the News of the World was among British news outlets that used "covert surveillance" and "deception" for stories lacking any public interest.

News Corp. declined to comment on those parts of the report.

Mr. Leveson also criticized the relationship between British politicians and the press.

"Taken as a whole, the evidence clearly demonstrates that, over the last 30-35 years and probably much longer, the political parties of U.K. national Government and of U.K. official Opposition, have had or developed too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest," Mr. Leveson said.

Mr. Leveson also spent months evaluating the relationship between the British press and the police. The Metropolitan Police, which saw two of its top officials resign at the height of the phone-hacking scandal, has apologized to victims of phone hacking for failing to investigate the matter thoroughly in its initial probe.

Overall, Mr. Leveson says he sees "no basis for challenging at any stage the integrity of the police, or that of the senior police officers concerned," but he knocked the force for failures in its initial phone-hacking probe and noted "troubling evidence" of police corruption in a "limited number of cases."

He also rapped the Metropolitan Police for leaking too much information to the press.

The Metropolitan Police said it would study the report "to ensure that the steps we've already taken to rectify past failings are fit for purpose."

(Published by WSJ - November 29, 2012)

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