Leveson’s press ethics report: lessons for and from India

After an inquiry that took 17 months and cost nearly four million pounds, Britain’s Lord Leveson has finally published his massive independent report on the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the press’ in Britain. The 1,987-page report comes in four volumes but can be read for free online at the Leveson website.

Britain and India are both countries that have a strong and robust free press. These are proud traditions, and Britain’s goes back all the way to 1695. Naturally, Leveson’s central recommendations – for the establishment of an independent regulator backed by legislation – has caused a major outcry among newspaper editors. The general newspaper sentiment – cutting across the Left and Right – is that a law to enforce press ethics will dismantle 300 years of press freedom.

These two key recommendations coming from the report – 1. The establishment of a regulator and 2. Legislation – are meant to complement each other. The former, however, has many unanswered questions around it: Who will set it up? Will the panel that will set it up be truly independent? And what exactly will be its relationship with the existing regulator, known as Ofcom?

The second recommendation is a political minefield. Prime Minister David Cameron, as also a large number of his Conservative party MPs, are opposed to legislation to enforce journalistic ethics. But the Conservative’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are wholly behind the idea. The opposition Labour party also supports the Liberal Democrats, and if the matter is not settled by Christmas, it could be put to a vote in parliament which could prove to be embarrassing to the divided coalition government.

What will the regulator do? To me, its functions look a bit like those of the Press Council of India. It will set standards for ethics, handle complaints and provide arbitration services. Crucially Leveson recommends that the body should have the power to impose fines of one million pounds on newspapers for serious or systemic breaches. Clearly, this goes way beyond India’s light-touch regulatory model. But then the breaches of ethics by the British press too have been rather more serious than anything we have seen in India.

So far, these breaches have mostly been violations of individual privacy and rights – some of them in truly abject circumstances. It is worth remembering that the entire inquiry was sparked off by revelations that a murdered schoolgirl’s (Milly Dowler’s) mobile phone had been hacked into by news hungry journalists and their paid private detectives. And here lies the chief lesson for the Press Council of India: the primacy of individual rights. Everything else – including the corruption of police officers in the payroll of media groups – flows from respect for this fundamental right.

Thankfully, Indian regulators have been spared the need to investigate cases that are as tragic as Milly Dowler’s and a host of others. Which must mean that self-regulation in India is working to an extent. Problems, however, have arisen over the practice of stings – and these are bound to emerge be used more frequently as systemic corruption becomes the main target for Indian investigative journalists. As with other matters, self-regulation is key here.

It is quite obvious for some time now that the problem in India is actually the reverse of what we have seen in Britain: i.e the tendency to slip into excessive state control – both formal control, as in the case of Article 66A, and informal as with the politically-instigated police action against the Mumbai women Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Shrinivasan. That’s clearly the lesson for Britain: how to guard against moves by the state and/or those in power to usurp individual rights.

There are two points here from the Leveson report that require the attention of editors and media regulators. First is the role of the police. Editors and regulators must decide what is in the public interest and what is not and the police must abide by those decisions. Justice Katju’s strong comments on the arrest of Dhada and Shrinivasan – later congratulating the Maharashtra Chief Minister – are exemplary. Individual rights and freedoms are useless if they are not protected by the law.

In Britain, the excesses of the media that led to the Leveson inquiry all constitute criminal acts. Hacking into Milly Dowler’s mobile phone was illegal and did not serve the public interest. Bribing police officers is illegal. Yet, the Leveson report has been criticised for being soft on the role of the police. The view of many British journalists is that these acts could have been addressed individually by police, but they didn’t do so.

Secondly, as the Dhada-Shrinivasan Facebook affair shows, there’s this whole area of Twitter, blogs and social media websites such as Facebook that’s becoming increasingly important in this debate. Leveson almost completely ignores this aspect, saying the Internet is an “ethical vacuum” and that people believe print journalists more, giving the press unique powers. He devotes just a single page to the Internet.

India and Britain aren’t about to become North Korea and China, but freedom of expression on the Internet needs to be protected as much as newspapers.

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