Who guards the Guardians?

Who guards the guardians?

That was the question posed by Brian Leveson at the start of the eponymous inquiry in Britain in November 2011. The Leveson Inquiry was set up in the wake of a major phone hacking scandal where it was revealed that News of the World journalists and other tabloid journalists had hacked into the private voicemails of numerous celebrities, royals and politicians.  The aim of the Leveson Inquiry was to further examine the nature and degree of press intrusion and related privacy matters and to evaluate whether it was now timely to establish a statutory regulatory body for the Press.

The question of whether the Press should be regulated in any way is a polemical one. If one believes in the notion of a free press in its purest form, free from any form of regulation or interference from the State, as exists in the US, then one must be prepared to live with the consequences of that. Michael Wolff, author of “The Man Who Owns the News: The Secret World of Rupert Murdoch” stated that “A free press means an unregulated one-no rules, no standards, not even the presumption that in an ideal, perfectly balanced, better nature world, there should be a higher morality…. A free press means tough luck.” (Trichinelli, Rob 2013, pg. 15). The First Amendment of the Constitution enshrines this right to a free press and free speech along with other rights and one can assume that American publishers of newspapers and magazines feel perfectly entitled to publish whatever they wish without fear of State interference.  The likelihood of a Leveson type Inquiry ever happening in the US is “unthinkable” according to Edward Wasserman, Dean of the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “Press regulation of any sort would inevitably trample sacred freedoms and unleash state apartchiks to badger and stifle the media.” (cited in Trichinelli, Rob 2013, pg. 15).  However, lest one assume that press freedom in the US is absolute, it isn’t. There are some limitations. Defamation laws exist although standards applied are different depending on whether the individual defamed is a public or private figure. Furthermore, the media have only a limited right to publish material which is considered classified by the government.  If a newspaper or media outlet obtains classified material, or if a journalist is witness to information that is classified, the government may request certain material be redacted or removed from the article. Finally, the liberties enjoyed by newspapers are overseen by the U.S. court system, while television and radio broadcasters are monitored by both the courts and a government regulatory commission.

In Britain, where the relationship between the Press and the public sphere has been, at times, fraught and mired in scandal and controversy, there have been numerous attempts to regulate the Press by various governments, none of which have succeeded.  Throughout history, there was always an appetite amongst the public for scandal and sensationalist stories and even during the 17th century, readers were being titillated by articles about buggery and the sexual proclivities of religious and government figures. However, at times it was the way in which these stories were reported on which raised eyebrows. As standards and values changed, so did the definition of what was and wasn’t acceptable from a moral and ethical perspective. Attitudes towards journalists also changed and incidences of press corruption and bribery did nothing to enhance the reputation of those involved in the industry. There was a lack of confidence in the press amongst the public and as a result the government set up a Royal Commission on the Press in 1947. The remit of the Royal Commission was to introduce a form of statutory control over the press and improve press standards. However, this idea was fervently resisted by the industry, which in response, set up its own General Council of the Press. This proved to be fairly ineffective and was followed by the establishment of a Press Council in 1953 and then a Press Complaints Commission in the 1990s.  The Calcutt Report which was set up in the aftermath of atrocious human rights offences by the press had recommended the establishment of this body and gave the new body 18 months in which to prove that it was capable of non-statutory self-regulation. Unfortunately, when it was reviewed in 1993 as Bloy (2012, pg 20) informs us, Calcutt was highly critical of it and “the government rejected the recommendations in favour of existing self-regulation.” In the aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry, Lord Leveson recommended newspapers should continue to be self-regulated – as they had been by the Press Complaints Commission – but that there should be a new press standards body created by the industry, backed by legislation, and with a new code of conduct. Then the idea of a Royal Charter was floated by the main political leaders in 2013 which was again rejected by industry and the press set up their own regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which had wider powers than previous bodies.   The trials of former News of the World journalists involved in the phone hacking scandal concluded in 2014 but at present, the situation remains largely unchanged with no statutory regulatory body in existence.

The situation in Ireland in contrast to both the US and Britain is very different. While we do not have statutory regulation of the Press, we do have statutory recognition of our own Press Council, established in 2008 and a Press Ombudsman.  The role of the Ombudsman is largely a mediation role and having statutory recognition in law, rather than regulation, allows for an equilibrium between the right to publish and the right to redress of a complainant (Bloy, 2012, pg 25) We also have strict defamation laws introduced in 2009 and if a complainant feels they have been unfairly treated by the press, they can seek redress through the legal system.  As Bloy states, during the Leveson Inquiry, Professor John Horgan, the Press Ombudsman gave evidence and expressed the opinion that statutory recognition (not regulation) did nothing to harm press freedom in Ireland.

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