Several months ago, British actor Hugh Grant added a little celeb dust to the European Parliament when he came to our plenary chamber in Brussels to participate in a discussion on media pluralism, ownership and control.
Other than fluttering the hearts of many women in the Parliament (including my assistants), Mr. Grant also spoke about the need to fight press intrusion and unethical means such as phone hacking.
The actor, himself a victim of phone hacking, became in recent months one of the most recognized faces associated with the UK’s Leveson Inquiry. Not only did he advocate his cause, but also he demonstrated investigative skills by tapping a confession of Paul McMullan, former News of the World journalist and self-confessed phone hacker, and later publishing these in the New Statesman newspaper.
The Leveson inquiry, which occupied the UK in the past year, is a reaction to the controversial phone hacking scandal that forced British authorities to re-examine the relationship of the press with the police, public and politicians.
The phone hacking scandal came to headlines in 2010 with discoveries that some journalists working for The News of the World newspaper, one of Britain’s best-selling tabloids, had been illegally tapping phones and voicemail of celebrities, politicians, victims of crime and even members of the Royal Family.
The turning point came in 2011 with reports that journalists from the News of the World newspaper had hacked the mobile phone belonging to murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. In wake of the revelation, media mogul Rupert Murdoch closed down the newspaper on 7July, 2011.
As the affair developed new evidence emerged, linking News of the World journalists to the Metropolitan Police. These links were extended to leading politicians, who allegedly accepted in silence the phone hacking practices, especially when used against their political opponents.
On July 2011 British Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Lord Justice Leveson to conduct an investigation into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the UK printed media and extent of unlawful conduct.
After a year of interviews and hearings, Lord Leveson published the first part of the inquiry on 29 November. Among many recommendations spread over a 2,000 pagereport, Lord Leveson calls for the creation of a legal mechanism that will see the regulation of the printed media in the UK.
The reactions to the report were varied; David Cameron warned of serious “principled and practical” concerns on the future of press regulation in Britain. Hugh Grant, on the other hand welcomed the proposal saying a new regulation system will protect good journalism and ward off the bad.
The prospect of state regulation of Britain’s proud free press is certainly controversial but inevitable, especially in the industrial area where freedom of press is not only under the influence of the state but also by private media barons which may encourage the Machiavellian thought of “the ends justify the means”. We witnessed the implementation of such “means” used by journalists not only in the UK but also here in Brussels, with journalists pretending to be lobbyists and tapping conversations and meetings with members.
Whether these practices really serve the public or do the opposite by putting at stake civil liberties is a question that the UK leaders must answer.
Should David Cameron decide to take the bold step and adopt the Leveson recommendations, he will have to follow Levenson’s criteria for – regulation which is effective, cheap, covers all “newspapers”, preserves media freedom and is a free service that protects the vulnerable.
It’s clear that finding such a mechanism will not be simple, however Mr. Cameron could look at other countries which managed to strike a balance between free and responsible press.
Denmark is such example.
The Danish Press Council was established in 1992 and it’s responsible for overseeing journalism in newspapers, on Danish TV and radio, and increasingly in online media. The Council consists of a chairman and a vice-chairman (both appointed upon the recommendation of the president of the Danish Supreme Court), and 6 other members who are appointed by the Minister of Justice upon recommendation of the Danish Journalists’ Union, editorial managements of the printed press, radio and television and the Danish Council for Adult Education. The existence and work of the council does not jeopardise Denmark, a fully functioning democracy which values press freedom highly.
Whatever path Mr. Cameron will choose to take, his decision will not only have an impact on the printed and online media, but it will also affect the culture of readers and reporting in his country, and possibly in others.
Greetings from the European Parliament,
Lidia Geringer de Oedenberg
Hugh Grant op-ed at the New Statesmen
Q&A News of the World phone-hacking scandal
The Danish Press Council