The Law Society Public Debate: Privacy, Free Press and the Public Interest
Marta Cooper: Privacy, free press and the public interest
21 Sep 11

With this year’s slew of superinjunctions and the exposure of the phone hacking scandal, the fine lines  between free speech, privacy, media regulation and public interest have never been so topical. On 20 September, lawyers Gideon Benaim and Hugh Tomlinson QC were joined by the Guardian’s David Leigh and Index editor Jo Glanville at the Law Society to pick apart this complex balance of principles and interests and evaluate the press’s role in upholding it.

It was first put to the panel whether the UK’s current privacy laws were working. Hugh Tomlinson QC argued they were, but he felt that rather than continuing to leave such decisions to judges, there needed to be legislation.

Leigh, meanwhile, was concerned about what he dubbed “the ballooning approach to privacy law” and its potentially restrictive effects on the journalism trade and free speech. Benaim, however, did not buy into what he termed “Doomsday” rhetoric — the assumption that investigative journalism and democracy were on the brink of tighter sanctions.

The subject of whether — and how — the press should be regulated in light of the recent phone hacking scandal that has marred Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation proved contentious. While Benaim was in favour of more controls, Leigh, Tomlinson and Glanville expressed concerns. “Regulation is attractive on the surface, but it cannot work because where journalism ends and blogging begins is not clear,” Tomlinson said.

He added, however, that he would like to see an “independent quasi-judicial regulatory body for the press” that mixes incentives and disincentives for reporters.

An audience member asked whether or not phone hacking would have occurred had regulations been in place and the reporters involved had received more rigorous journalistic training. For Leigh, this was a non-issue in News Corp’s case: “The tabloid culture of anything goes took over.” In this atmosphere, hacking unsurprisingly became acceptable.

Glanville agreed that controls may well have proved futile. “Even if regulations were in place, how would they have stopped hacking when even the police and the CPS ignored it?”

The panel added that the very reason phone hacking persisted was due to widespread concerns — and fear — over the power of Murdoch and his media empire. An issue raised, but left unanswered, was whether or not an independent regulator would have held back over such concerns.

Glanville closed the debate by noting how we are seeing a “massive cultural shift in how we treat our own privacy. This is mismatched with what is legally possible in terms of what is published.” In the short term, the upcoming Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions and the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking should provide a pause for thought and help refocus both British journalism and the public’s relationship with it.

Marta Cooper is an editorial assistant at Index on Censorship.