In my Dec. 4 blog I reported that the UK is wrangling over its commitment to freedom of the press, which has been a bulwark of freedom in Britain and other seriously democratic countries for hundreds of years. The phone-hacking sprees of Rupert Murdoch’s London newspapers, primarily the since-discontinued News of the World, caused such a ruction that the government ordered a study of press and its behavior, with the implicit message that something needed to be done about it.
That week the newspaper industry was busily writing an alternative to the Leveson Report on “Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press,” published on November 29. Emotions erupted because the report recommended that newspaper comments should be controlled by rules that would be “underpinned” by new laws.
The Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, agreed with the newspaper industry that creation of new laws could infringe on freedom of the press. The Labour Party took the opposite view. It sides with an organization that calls itself Hacked Off, composed of people who believe strongly that celebrities and other well-known individuals should be protected from media snoops. These of course include those whose wealth has come from their own exploitation of their names and physical recognition.
Coincidentally or otherwise, the UK Parliament’s Human Rights Equality and Human Rights Commission offered stiff criticism of measures that protect (all) individuals’ right to privacy in a researchers’ report published in the summer of 2011. Hearings by Leveson were held in 2011 and 2012. The parliamentary report, which followed earlier investigations of privacy law, said “UK laws have a “weak, fractured and piecemeal approach to privacy,” and needed to be put right.
Since our December 4 blog, the Conservative Party came up with what they hoped would be seen as a compromise with Leveson’s “privacy with teeth” recommendation. This would create an independent body with its own rules, overseen by a similarly independent “press regulator.” Labourites, many Social Democrats, and the Hacked Off people didn’t care much for this, especially since the new system would be established with a Royal Charter, avoiding the need to submit proposed future changes for parliamentary legislation. Leveson’s recommendations, they said, needed to be followed, not replaced.
Cameron’s idea was surprising and seductive. Royal charters, bearing the royal signature, originated in 1066 and are best known as instruments that establish, in perpetuity, self-governing municipalities or institutions such as Cambridge University. The BBC has a royal charter; so did the 13 American colonies. A relatively recent recipient of a royal charter is the.Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity, in 2011.
Interestingly, the Labour spokesman in the press-controls affair is Harriet Harman, Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Shadow Deputy Prime Minister. “Shadow” carries the suggestion that the person casting it is one of the opposition party’s putative ministers-in-waiting and/or, as in Ms Harman’s case, deputy leader of the opposition party. With this background she should be well acquainted with media and royal commissions, respectively, as well as with sports and the vastness of “culture.” The variety of hats she must wear is somewhat baffling, and in this case may be somewhat less than comfortable. Is the “management of sport and physical activity” more deserving of a royal charter than the media?
“The Royal Charter offers a different approach and one that is worth exploring,” declared the Daily Telegraph in a .February 14 editorial. Then Ms Harman said her colleagues had not completely binned the Royal Commission idea, so long as it takes adequate care of the rich, the famous, and, I suppose, others who under favorable circumstances actually seek the headlines..
And so the debate goes on. Perhaps the basic laws on privacy do need updating and harmonizing with European norms. But let’s not jeopardize the media’s right (and duty) to analyze and criticize the actions of government and other large institutions, including private ones. “Editors and MPs, back the royal charter,” pleaded the Guardian this morning. Then referring to a discredited earlier attempt to curb journalistic malfeasance, it noted: “The PCC failed dismally because it was controlled by the press. A royal charter will deliver a genuinely independent regulator.”
The Royal Commission, though admittedly an old and seldom-used convention, gets my vote too.