Jacintha Saldanha’s suicide, coming as it does in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, has reinforced the public impression of a media that is out of control
Hacking telephones, running dubious sting operations, and pulling tasteless stunts such as the two Australian radio presenters’ hoax call that drove an innocent woman to her death: will they stop at nothing in the scramble for a “sexy” story? All kosher for the sake of a page-one scoop, or prime-time broadcast?
The debate on press freedom in Britain following the Leveson report on media standards and ethics has acquired a new urgency in the light of the Jacintha Saldanha case. Both in its pursuit of a celebrity-driven story (prurient medical details of a pregnant princess) and the methods deployed, it is seen as another version of the News of the World phone hacking scandal, though more shocking because it led to a tragic death.
The public revulsion that has seen advertisers pull their ads from the Sydney-based radio station behind the call that claimed Saldanha’s life is reminiscent of the outrage that ensued the hacking affair, leading to the closure of NoW.
But, the questions being asked are: are they just two one-off incidents? Or do they represent a new global trend in journalistic practices that, as Lord Leveson pointed out, put sensationalism and profit above considerations of public interest and old-fashioned notions of responsibility?
There may or may not have been a “golden age” of journalism when it was supposedly wholly devoted to serving public interest and upholding free speech. But it is widely acknowledged that media standards are at a new low with commercial pressures and competition pushing professional ethics to their limits.
Meanwhile, the Leveson report itself has run into a political row provoking angry arguments and street protests while media bosses scramble to reach a cross-industry agreement to pre-empt its key recommendation — an independent media regulatory body backed by legislation. The other day, a group of protesters stood outside Downing Street waving banners that read: “It’s not bonkers! LoL!!”, as amused tourists looked on.
The “bonkers” was a reference to Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise in the run-up to the Leveson report that he would implement it in full unless it recommended “anything that is bonkers” apparently alluding to the possibility that the report might propose state regulation of the press to rein in its wilder parts. Which, in the event, it didn’t.
And “Lol” was how Mr. Cameron signed off his frequent texts to Rebekah Brooks believing it stood for “lots of love” when she was at the height of her powers and he was desperately trying to get the Murdoch press to back the Tories at the last general elections.
Protesters, waving those bonkers/lol banners, intended to make a link between Mr. Cameron’s decision to reject the Leveson report’s recommendation for statutory regulation and his proximity to powerful media groups.
Playing the papers
Mr. Cameron is seeking to portray himself as a champion of free press arguing that the Leveson proposal could infringe on free speech. But critics dismiss it as a red herring and claim that he is trying to please his friends in the newspaper industry with an eye on the next elections, less than three years away, when he will need their support again.
“He wants the support of News International [Rupert Murdoch’s British media group] and the Mail titles, and standing up for freedom of expression [also] gives him a shot at The Independent and The Independent on Sunday [both opposed any form of statutory intervention],” wrote The Independent’s influential columnist John Rentoul pointing out that the Prime Minister appeared to have conveniently “discovered a principle” to suit his purpose, which was to keep the media barons on his side.
Politically, Mr. Cameron is isolated. Not only the opposition Labour Party but his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, and many of his own Tory MPs are in favour of implementing the Leveson recommendation. They have threatened to bring in their own legislation and force a vote if he doesn’t give in. He is also up against public opinion with one poll showing that nearly 80 per cent Britons favour “independent Press regulator established by law”.
Too many last chances
Before Leveson, there had already been six inquiries into press standards and after each inquiry the industry asked to be given “one last chance” to raise its game. Instead, things have gone from bad to worse. The hacking row has forced even Mr. Cameron to acknowledge that the “status quo is not an option”. There is no appetite for another “last chance”; and as Lord Leveson observed : “No one in their right minds would contemplate an eighth [inquiry].’’
One only needs to look at the newspapers’ letters columns to get a sense of the depth of public anger. People want to know why the press alone should have special exemption from any statutory regime when all other professions are subjected to some form of legislative regulation. They ridicule claims that statutory regulation “equals state control”.
Professor William W. McBryde, Emeritus Professor of Commercial Law at Edinburgh University, pointed out that even “our courts and their duties and powers are governed by statute”.
“It does not follow that our judges are controlled by politicians or the government of the day,” he wrote to The Times, which like other mainstream newspapers is opposed to statutory regulation.
In The Independent, an irate reader described the government’s unwillingness to regulate the press as a “case of honour among thieves” wondering why should it be so reluctant to touch the press when it regulates “every other aspect of our lives”.
Understandably, the real anger is among the victims of media abuse.
It was to them that Mr. Cameron made his famous “bonkers” promise. They have accused him of “betraying” them, and “ripping the heart and soul” out of the report.
The lawyer for the parents of Milly Dowler — the murdered teenaged girl whose phone was hacked by NoW journalists even as she lay dead — said Mr. Cameron had failed his own “victim test”. While setting up the Leveson inquiry, Mr. Cameron had said that he was determined to get justice for the victims — and would judge the inquiry’s success by whether it met the “victim test”.
“It looks like he’s failed his own test,” said Mark Lewis.
Beyond Fleet Street and Downing Street, however, such moves are seen as a “fudge” which will not change anything on the ground. The Saldanha case has reinforced the public contempt for a media that they believe is threatening to go out of control.