Ending months of feverish speculation, Lord Justice Leveson has finally given his verdict on the British press — and it does not make comfortable reading either for journalists or politicians. The Financial Times called it a “damning indictment of the culture and practices of the newspaper industry.” And The Times whose sister paper, the now defunct News of the World, caused the phone hacking scandal that led to the inquiry, credited Lord Leveson with correctly identifying the “lapses in moral and professional standards” of the press. His 2000-page report — “longer than Harry Potter, shorter than Proust, denser than Tolstoy,” as the Guardian put it — lambasts the media for its “reckless” and “outrageous” behaviour and accuses it of having “wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people” for many decades. Politicians get a sharp rap on the knuckles for developing “too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest”. Yet, for all the apparent sound and fury, the report is more significant not so much for what it says but for what it does not say.
During the hearings, Lord Leveson made some strong observations about the need for a radically new regulatory regime. This sparked speculation that he was likely to recommend a strong dose of statutory regulation. It was widely thought that he might bow to pressure from victims’ campaign groups such as Hacked Off and go for the “nuclear option” — a press law. In the end, though, he settled for a sensible middle course between the discredited current system of self-regulation and state regulation. He wants the creation of a new regulatory body which would be “truly independent” of the newspaper industry and the government, but backed by legislation. He stressed that this did not imply state control. The proposed legislation was not meant to “establish” the new body but only to “recognise” an independent regulatory regime as the public had no confidence in the industry-controlled Press Complaints Commission. While the Opposition Labour Party and the government’s junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, have enthusiastically embraced the proposal, Prime Minister David Cameron believes it “has the potential to infringe free speech and the free press,” a view not shared by many of his own MPs. Eventually what will count is public opinion and it is overwhelmingly in favour of the Leveson proposal, leaving Mr. Cameron looking like the odd man out. The report will find resonance in India too, where calls for media regulation are growing louder. Indeed, before it is beset with its own hacking scandal, the Indian media should see what lessons it can draw from the Leveson report.