Lessons from the Leveson report

By Chiang Ya-chi 江雅綺  / 

Wed, Dec 12, 2012 - Page 8

Last year, the Guardian ran a story about how a murdered girl named Milly Dowler had had her mobile phone hacked by a reporter working for a tabloid. The story caused a public outcry that led to the closure of the News of the World. However, the paper’s demise did not see the end to the cellphone hacking scandal, and there were a great many calls in British society to investigate the mess created by the press over the past few years in its attempts to survive in an increasingly difficult commercial environment. These calls gave rise to the Leveson Inquiry, an investigation into the culture, practice and ethics of the press, chaired by Lord Justice Brian Leveson.

The eight-month inquiry heard testimony from more than 300 witnesses, and last week Leveson finally submitted a report more than 2,000 pages long, covering a wide range of issues — including the newspaper industry, media culture in Britain, journalistic ethics, the close relationship between the press and politicians, and the relationship between the freedom of the press and democracy — and providing many observations and recommendations.

Essentially, the Leveson report recommends that an independent body regulate the newspaper industry to ensure that newspapers work in the public’s interest. Leveson conceives of this body as being both regulatory and legislative in nature. At present, press regulation in the UK is handled by the Press Complaints Commission, whose members work within the industry, but this is largely seen as a toothless institution.

Although Leveson does not agree that any serving editors should be members of the body, he is also strongly opposed to the idea of serving politicians — whom the press are supposed to oversee — regulating the press. Basically, it is to be an independent, external body consisting of trusted public figures and a minority of people working in the news industry, with its operating procedures clearly defined in legislation.

At first glance, Leveson’s recommendations could be easily interpreted as suggesting that legislation is preferable to regulation, leaving them open to accusations of being deleterious to press freedom.

However, Leveson also emphasized that any legislation should, in addition to reinforcing regulation, “enshrine ... a legal duty on the government to protect the freedom of the press.”

He hopes that, by virtue of clear legislation, the British newspaper industry will have guarantees for freedom of the press comparable to those in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, a win-win situation for the industry and the wider society.

Another focus of the Leveson report was unraveling the Gordian nature of the relationship between the press and politicians. Following testimony from a substantial number of people, Leveson said that some top politicians were “too close” to journalists at the highest level. This meant that individuals were able to use the media to influence policy orientation or to obtain political favors.

In his statement, Leveson specifically referred to an example of politicians’ handling of a bid by a certain media organization hoping to increase its holdings and acquisitions of another, and said that there should be more transparency in all policy decisions, with particular regard to those involving media organizations’ self-interests. Otherwise, he said, there was a risk of the public interest being sacrificed to that of politicians and the press.

In certain regards, the press in Taiwan is subject to more stringent controls than it is in the UK. British tabloids have been around for about 300 years, and now that they have been found to have broken the law, Leveson has called for regulation backed up by legislation. British Prime Minister David Cameron, while accepting the recommendations in the report, has expressed reservations about statutory regulation. However, in Taiwan, the paparazzi culture was only a decade old when the Child and Juvenile Welfare Act (兒童及少年福利法) enshrined a news self-regulation system into law.

That said, legislation in Taiwan is way behind in terms of guarantees of transparency in relationships between the press and politicians or on plurality of opinions, turning the old adage on leniency on its head to become: “Be strict with others and lenient upon oneself.”

In the UK, the reports on the cellphone hacking scandal made it quite clear that many politicians were pandering to the press, cowed by their power, and it has become difficult to know just who is running the country, or who is steering policy formation.

If this kind of thing can happen in the UK, with its robust press and stringent restrictions on media acquisition within an established democracy, the Leveson report has implications that go beyond the British press industry: It also provides food for thought for Taiwan.

Chiang Ya-chi is an assistant professor at the Shih Hsin University School of Law’s Graduate Institute for Intellectual Property Rights.

Translated by Paul Cooper