Leveson: What's on the line?
Marta Cooper on the Leveson Inquiry
27 Nov 12

Lord Justice Leveson has been dealt a bad hand. On Thursday he’ll fulfil his task of recommending a new regulatory system for the British press — that vague bunch whose boundaries and levels of entry shift with each technological innovation.

It’s possible Sir Brian’s report will have a brief life in the age of the internet: A world where we are all publishers, where citizen journalists and reporters on national papers curate and cover the same stories, where traditional models of journalism are chipped away. But Leveson is determined to recommend something that works for the public, the public who were disgusted (rightly so) at the phone hacking scandal.

So what’s on the table? The industry and the newly-formed Free Speech Network is flying the flag for improved self-regulation. Index has called for a model of tough, independent regulation free from government interference. Campaign group Hacked Off is pushing for statutory underpinning of a new independent regulator, a model the National Union of Journalists and several Tory MPs and peers defended earlier this month.

Hacked Off and its camp argue that only a dab of statute is needed for the press to get its house in order and serve the public. A new regulator would be created by parliamentary statute, but would not play a role in day-to-day operations, sitting instead at arm’s length from Westminster.

But would statute even keep up with the pace of change in the digital age? Would we see statutory definitions of privacy and the public interest as well?

Either this country has a press entirely free from government interference, or it doesn’t, quoting the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson. A new regulator might not play a part in daily operations, but, as Nelson writes, “as soon as the device of political control is created, it can be ratcheted up later.”

It is now our country’s journalists who risk paying the price for the actions not only of a few reporters but also of power-seeking politicians and police. Ordinary journalists who are, let’s not forget, already hemmed in by England’s chilling libel laws and the plethora of other criminal legislation, several areas of which do not carry a public interest defence for reporters.

And, to muddy the waters a little more, we are all journalists now, to use author Nick Cohen’s words. That’s why the hand Leveson’s been dealt is a tough one: his recommendations may not just affect the press, they could affect all of us who blog, tweet our views or share our sentiments on Facebook.

Those of us who obsess about press freedom  might well have concerns about bringing statute into the game. And why shouldn’t we? Hard-won freedoms that are chipped away at, however well-intentioned, can be hard to replace.

Marta Cooper is an editorial researcher at Index on Censorship. She tweets at @martaruco