Leveson Report & and self-regulation

Last week or the week before, I did one of my stories for WMUA on the ultimatum issued by David Cameron to the newspapers of Britain with regards to self-regulation.

Some years ago, the News Corps owned News of the World publication was under investigation for hacking the phones of (according to Wikipedia) first, “celebrities, politicians and members of the British Royal Family” and then later, “murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, relatives of deceased British soldiers, and victims of the 7/7 London bombings.” This, as one might imagine, did not go well for News of the World (which shut down due to all its advertisers taking their business elsewhere). However, it also caused Cameron to commission a report, forming a special committee, headed by Lord Justice Leveson, to look into not only the News of the World scandal, but also the wider culture and practices of UK newspapers.

The so-called “Leveson Report” was published on November 29th, and is about 2,000 pages in length. However, anyone who is interested can click through a fun, interactive media piece on the Guardian website that goes through some of the important pieces. Alternately, one can download and read the 48 page introduction and summary of recommendations, provided by the British government. (Which, while it’s taking up space on my hard drive, I have not yet had the time to comb through.)

The editors of the major papers have since been meeting to discuss the implementation of these new recommendations. The idea is that the former body of self-regulation the press used, the Press Complaints Commission, is totally useless, and thus needs to be revamped. They’re trying to give it real teeth this time, which everyone is necessarily approaching with caution.

I think the two most interesting things to come out of this whole debacle are first, watching newspapers report on their own actions and goings on. Here you have an article on the Guardian, about the editor-in-chief of the Guardian (and others). My editor always tells us, you can’t report on anything you have a conflict of interest in. Like, for example, you cannot interview anyone you know personally (a rule I broke, last week when I covered the first publicly advertised UMass Green Party, interviewing the leaders, one of whom is a friend of a friend, and whom I spoken to, in a non-professional capacity, on multiple occasions, and have friended on FaceBook). But, the newspapers, by definition have a stake in regulation of news practices, so part of me wonders if, in a that eternal quest for as few conflicts of interest as possible, it makes any sense for newspapers to report on it at all?

The second thing I found interesting about this whole thing comes from a speech Lord Leveson delivered to University of Melbourne in Australia. He said that it would be impossible to achieve real success in regulating the press unless they also cracked down on regulation of bloggers. He’s quoted as saying in the Guardian “If we are to ensure that appropriate standards are maintained, we must meet these challenges, and ensure that the media … is not placed at a disadvantage where the enforcement of the law is concerned.” That is, that if we’re not enforcing the same rules for bloggers, that we are for newspapers, the newspapers are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting and gathering information, that might lead them to do unscrupulous things. This bring into question some of the stuff I talked about a couple of posts back, and that was touched on in the Page One documentary vis à vis the role of newspapers as fact checkers versus information dispensaries.

Whether you regulate the internet or not is secondary, because the newspaper doesn’t have the same societal value: the newspaper is as much about verification as it is about rumor. Blogs and Twitter are, in a way, as Leveson says the “electronic version of pub gossip,” and the newspapers’ job is to see how much of that gossip has value. (I know my first instinct when I read something online is to check the source it came from and then, if I’m not convinced of its legitmacy, to wait for it to be confirmed by someone more trustworthy.)

Mostly, I think I agree with the op-ed columnist who argues that the only way to really achieve better media practice is through limiting the number of news outlets someone is allowed to own. That, however, is an extension of my personal war against oligopolies, monopolies, and all other aggregations of power and, as a result, not particularly impartial.

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