Press and Internet freedom

by Hugh Cortazzi

The exposure of the scandalous behavior of the popular press in Britain in hacking into the telephones of people in the news caused such anger that the British prime minister set up a judicial inquiry into standards of behavior in the media.

Lord Justice Leveson was appointed to lead this inquiry, which heard evidence from politicians, newspaper proprietors and editors, policemen and lawyers, as well as members of the public whose privacy had been breached by press intrusion.

Lord Leveson submitted his report on Nov. 29. It was very long and detailed and it is doubtful whether many people have read it in full. But the summaries that have appeared make it clear that reporters for popular papers often behaved illegally with the approval of their editors.

The police, who in some cases much were too close to the press, were at best dilatory in investigating abuses. Politicians in the Conservative and Labour parties had much too cozy connections with media barons, particularly Rupert Murdoch of News Corp. This raised suspicions of collusion.

The current mechanism for dealing with media abuses is the press complaints commission. This was set up by the media and largely staffed by their representatives. It has been feeble and toothless.

One of the worst cases exposed by the inquiry was the hacking of the mobile phone of a missing schoolgirl, later found to have been murdered. A journalist is reported to have deleted messages on the phone, which led her parents and the police to think that she might still be alive.

Another shocking case was that of a schoolmaster whom the press hounded on suspicion that he had been responsible for the murder of a woman in Bristol. In fact he was totally innocent.

Leveson called for the establishment of a new and independent body to oversee and enforce proper standards of behavior by the press with powers to levy heavy fines in case of noncompliance. He wanted this new body overseen by another independent organization backed by statute.

Aggrieved members of the public are calling for early action on all recommendations made by Leveson. The press and some politicians, however, are concerned by his call for a statute to underpin the actions of a new and much tougher press complaints commission. They fear that such a statute, which could be altered by future governments with parliamentary approval, could ultimately lead to controls on the press and even to censorship that would undermine the principles of freedom of speech. These fears may be far-fetched, but clearly water-tight safeguards guaranteeing press freedom need to be worked out.

The right to privacy is important, but if the press is to continue to do its job of exposing weaknesses and abuses in the public and the private sectors, investigative journalists must remain free to dig and expose. The media must exercise due care so that only substantiated stories are published.

It was recently rumored that a senior figure in the Conservative Party had been involved many years ago in the sexual abuse of boys at an institution in North Wales. His name became widely known though the Internet, and the BBC ran a story that, although it did not name the figure, left little doubt about his identity. It turned out there was no truth to the rumors and the BBC had to pay substantial damages because they had not properly checked their sources.

This case has inevitably underlined the fact that the media (press, radio and television) are not the only culprits responsible for intrusions into privacy and smearing individuals. More could perhaps be done by websites like Facebook and Twitter to police their sites, but it will be difficult to get the right balance between measures to enforce high standards and steps that might lead to censorship and infringement of freedom of speech.

The British press have been told in no uncertain terms by the prime minister that they must put their own house in order and come up with an enforceable code of conduct or face the likelihood of some form of statutory control.

The problems exposed in the Leveson report are not unique to Britain, although in other democratic countries the press is not so dominated by the Murdoch news empire as it has been in Britain. Murdoch’s decision to close The News of the World has reduced his empire, but it still remains extensive.

Leading British newspapers are humdrum and are probably perused by only a minority of readers.

In Italy the media are far too much under the aegis of Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minster accused of corruption and sexual offences.

Japan has some of the most serious newspapers in the world with the largest circulations. But much of the reporting in Japanese newspapers is dull and uninspired. Leading articles in Japanese newspapers are usually totally predictable depending on where the newspaper stands in the political spectrum.

There have been some examples in Japan of effective investigative journalism, but these have usually been started in magazines that may or may not have a wide circulation. A recent example is the Olympus scandal, which first emerged in a relatively obscure magazine.

After the scandal broke and Michael Woodford, who had only just been appointed CEO of Olympus, was ousted by other directors who had wanted to cover up the scandal, the Japanese media, like the rest of the Japanese business establishment, were quick to close ranks and seemed to prefer to blame the furor on foreigners who allegedly did not understand Japanese psychology and the cult of loyalty. Perhaps the foreigners understood it only too well.

Many fear that the reaction to the Olympus exposure reveals a serious weakness in Japanese culture that could increase the speed of Japan’s decline.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.