British newspapers are nervously awaiting the publication on Thursday of the first part of an extensive judge-led inquiry into press standards that could result in tougher regulation of the industry.
British Prime Minister David Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry in response to revelations that the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid had hired a private investigator to hack the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
The first part has looked at the culture, practices and ethics of the press, shining an uncomfortable light on the aggressive British tabloid press’ methods.
Yet the eight months of public hearings have also seen politicians, including Cameron, under the microscope for their often close links with media owners and executives.
Cameron suffered the indignation of having his private text messages to former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks — signed off with “lol,” which he mistakenly thought meant “lots of love” — revealed to the world.
For many people, such evidence of the web of friendships between media organizations and the top politicians they claim to scrutinize has been one of the revelations of the inquiry.
The recommendations made by senior British Judge Brian Leveson could usher in a radical change to the way media organizations operate in Britain.
The British press is currently overseen by a body staffed by editors and newspapers insist the system of self-regulation should be retained.
Leveson has not said whether he favors statutory regulation, but British Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Maria Miller has warned that retaining the “status quo” is “not an option.”
Cameron’s office on Saturday rejected a newspaper report that the prime minister has already decided to resist the introduction of statutory regulation, saying he was “open-minded” until he sees the report.
Editors have warned that tough regulation of the press would limit press freedom and hamper investigative reporting.
University of Westminster communications professor Steven Barnett said the inquiry had been a “thoroughly beneficial cathartic experience” for the British press.
As a result of the inquiry, “the tabloids are better behaved. The way they practice journalism is more attuned to what most people would regard as good practice,” he told reporters. “For me, if anything comes out of Leveson, it ought to be a means of ensuring that the British newspapers actually follow their own code of conduct,” through a guarantee enshrined in law.
Yet with Cameron eying an election in 2015, Barnett said there was a strong possibility the prime minister would avoid angering the media with a clampdown on the press as he bids for a second term in office.
Cameron could “kick it into the long grass” in return for support during the next election, he said.
Anything less than a robust response from the British government will be condemned by victims of hacking, including actors Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller, who told the Leveson Inquiry of the intrusion in their private lives from the tabloids.
Miller has received ￡100,000 (US$160,000) in damages from News International, the publishers of the News of the World.
She said that before she discovered her cellphone was hacked, “I accused my friends and family of selling stories and they accused each other as well.”
Regardless of Leveson’s recommendations, cellphone hacking has already left deep scars on the British press.
Murdoch shut down the News of the World — which was then Britain’s highest-selling newspaper — last year as public anger at the hacking allegations grew.
Several people face charges relating to the cellphone-hacking scandal, which has spawned three criminal investigations — one into alleged bribery of public officials, another into phone hacking itself and a third into computer hacking.
Brooks and Andy Coulson, a former News of the World editor who became Cameron’s chief of communications, face charges for allegations of bribing officials and for alleged conspiracy to hack cellphones.