MEDIA
11/30/2012 07:27 am ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

Leveson Report's Legislation Proposals Meet Chilly Reception In Media

The Leveson Report's recommendation of legislation to back a new press regulator in Britain has been met with a largely frosty reception in media circles on both sides of the Atlantic.

The 2,000 page report, which came after over a year of hearings and investigations into the ethics of the British newspaper industry, was published on Thursday. Lord Justice Leveson harshly criticized some of the more scandalous activities of the press, and proposed a complex new system of regulation to bring newspapers in line.

Broadly speaking, Leveson would create a board that was staffed independently of the press and was overseen by communications regulator Ofcom. The board would have the power to impose heavy fines, carry out investigations and handle complaints. It would not be mandatory to join, but papers that did not could face higher legal costs and would be regulated by Ofcom. Legislation would be needed to vest Ofcom with the authority to monitor the board. It would be the first law directly affecting the press since 1695, when official government licensing of newspapers ended.

Prime Minister David Cameron threw cold water on the idea of a change in the laws on Thursday, saying he had "serious misgivings" about anything that could "impinge" on a free press. He is opposed in this view, however, by the opposition Labour party as well as the Liberal Democrats, the junior member of his coalition government.

Though some questioned Cameron's motives, saying he was caving in to pressure from the newspaper industry, press freedom groups and newspapers in both the United States and Britain joined him in objecting to new legislation.

The Committee to Protect Journalists said they would "undermine press freedom" in Britain. The New York Times agreed, writing in an editorial that "the regulatory remedies proposed Thursday by an official commission of inquiry seem misplaced, excessive and potentially dangerous to Britain's centuries-old traditions of a press free from government regulation."

Reuters media critic Jack Shafer echoed this argument:

There's nothing voluntary about the regulatory scheme Lord Justice Leveson proposes. It surveys the landscape that is the British press -- an institution sufficiently demented that one of its organs, News of the World, hacked dead schoolgirl Milly Dowler's mobile phone in pursuit of lewd headlines -- and proclaims that all publications, be they guilty or innocent of the numerous offenses catalogued by Leveson, be subject to a new government-mandated order. With that nose under the tent, it wouldn't be long until the entire camel was calling the place home.

In Britain, many newspapers found themselves broadly aligned with Cameron, who said he wanted an independent body that followed the "Leveson principles" without being grounded in statute. Critics might say that these titles were objecting to new legislation out of self-interest as much as principle, and certainly the tabloid press was most vociferous in backing the prime minister. The Daily Mail, which was perhaps the most vocal enemy of Leveson throughout the inquiry, waxed rhapsodic about Cameron.

"David Cameron sees this report for what it is -- a mortal threat to the British people's historic right to know," the paper wrote.
"If he prevails in protecting that right, with the help of like-minded freedom lovers in the Commons and Lords, he will earn a place of honour in our history."

The so-called "quality press," though, was also mostly supportive of Cameron. "Let us implement the Leveson Report, without a press law," the Daily Telegraph wrote.

"[Leveson's] central proposal, that the establishment and working of a new and fully independent regulatory body should be underpinned by legislation, we believe to be not only unnecessary, but undesirable," the Independent added.

Not all papers were so reflexively opposed to legislation. Speaking to the BBC, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, said on Friday that a "bit" of statute would not damage the press if it brought a better regulatory system with it.

There was also widespread puzzlement at Leveson's near-total ignoring of online media in his report.

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