The reach and influence of the British media is immense, and it goes well beyond the island-nation. Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendation is still a few weeks away. But, there is already a sense of nervous anxiety among the journalists that the recommendation may well be a beginning to the end of the era of self-regulation. Jeffrey Dvorkin, Executive Director, Organization of News Ombudsmen, raises rather an alarming question: “The sacred independence of the press and the media in general has been an unquestioned attribute of free societies. Democracy is based on that independence and along with it, the duty of care of news organizations to have the freedom to write and broadcast what they deem appropriate without either government approval or condemnation. But what if, in a digital age, that assumption connecting journalism to democracy, is just outmoded, if not plain wrong?”
The Leveson Inquiry is a product of multiple failures: a few media organisations failing to adhere to acceptable norms of ethical journalism, certain arms of executive willing to play along the requirements of sensationalist publications, and the inability of the self-regulation mechanism as enshrined in the working of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) to act as a deterrent against abhorrent journalistic practices.
The very construction of the sentences that spell out four modules in the ongoing Leveson Inquiry is a clear pointer to the downward slide of the media from its high moral ground. The official website for the inquiry, http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk, states: “The Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press is running in four modules. These are: 1. The relationship between the press and the public and looks at phone hacking and other potentially illegal behaviour. 2. The relationships between the press and police and the extent to which that has operated in the public interest. 3. The relationship between press and politicians. 4. Recommendations for a more effective policy and regulation that supports the integrity and freedom of the press while encouraging the highest ethical standards.”
It is rather sad and ironic to see that both the state-inspired Inquiries — like that of Hutton Inquiry — and the media’s self-appointed body — The PCC — mimic each other to swiftly whitewash their principal constituency. The Guardian’s exposé of phone hacking shook the entire media world but the PCC was unmoved. Its inquiry was a shameful saga. In its report dated 9-11-2009, the PCC said: “the Commission could not help but conclude that The Guardian’s stories did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given… Whatever the reason, there did not seem to be anything concrete to support the implication that there had been a hitherto concealed criminal conspiracy at the News of the World to intrude into people’s privacy.”
‘Many uncomfortable truths’
The question to keep in mind is that Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, is a firm supporter of self-regulation. But he is not an apologist for self-evasiveness. In his George Orwell lecture, Rusbridger said: “In the absence of anything that looked to the outside world like regulation, the rogue actions of, I hope, a few journalists, have landed the press as a whole with a series of inquiries which will last not months, but years, and which will, I suspect, be quite uncomfortable for all involved. … Over the coming period we’ll hear many uncomfortable truths about failed regulation, distorted priorities, illegal practices and a betrayal of the both the public and the public interest.”
Fail-proof mechanism possible?
The relentless work by The Guardian team revealed a much deeper malice. The dark underbelly of the sensationalist media was soaked in myriad forms of unethical practices going beyond phone hacking and bribery. This leads to a difficult question: when media is not a monolith, but a combination of good, bad and indifferent publications, is it possible to work out a fail-proof and credible self-regulatory mechanism?
While it is true that the PCC had failed in checking and stopping the News of the World from its despicable practice, let’s not assume that the state machinery is free from inherent problems. It is important to remember that media advisers for the British prime ministers from the days of Margaret Thatcher have been either from advertising or from tabloids, certainly not the ideal areas one turns to for exemplary media practices. The role of Alastair Campbell for Tony Blair and Andy Coulson for David Cameron is now well documented and hence, to assume that the state-led regulation may be the panacea for all ills confronting media may be suicidal. So, where do we go from here?