On the 24th July Lord Justice Leveson drew his inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press to a close, bringing to an end an investigation lasting over one hundred days and involving some of the most high profile individuals within politics, society and the media.
The inquiry is believed to have cost the tax payer almost £3.4 million, with estimates that this total is set to reach £5.6 million. With so much money invested into the investigation, many both within the industry and outside eagerly await Lord Leveson’s report, due to come out at the end of this year. Yet many question the impact that this report will have on the future of the British press. It seems the report has been shelved before Lord Leveson has even put pen to paper.
The problem is that finding an outcome that is deemed acceptable to all parties will be extremely difficult. The phone hacking scandal has demonstrated that there needs to be a change in the system. Self-regulation has not worked, yet to make the industry answerable to any statute of government would irrevocably threaten the freedom of expression inherent within the British press. It all boils down to one simple question: what would we, the general public prefer, to have the press afraid of the politicians or the politicians afraid of the press?
It is not much of a choice, but the answer is an obvious one. In order to safeguard the principles of democracy upon which the government of this country is based, it must always be the latter.
The only option – one that is favoured by the industry itself, is for the creation of a new independent regulatory body, not underpinned by any statutory laws, to replace the Press Complaints Commission.
Sceptics could be justified in asserting that the Leveson Inquiry has been an unprecedented waste of public money. On the other hand, it could be argued that bureaucratic measures aside, the Leveson inquiry will have a far deeper and lasting impact on the industry and society at large.
The inquiry has served as a reminder that, just as the politicians are answerable to the press, the press are answerable to the general public and the public has and will hold them to account.
The aggressive pursuit of breaking news stories by journalists at the News of the World, their abandonment of all ethical and moral considerations in the treatment of those individuals subject to media scrutiny, has been decried as wholly unacceptable.
As David Sherborne, representative of the victims of the phone hacking scandal pronounced in his closing remarks, “The press is on trial here, and not simply in this room but also out there in the court of public opinion”.
As well as bringing about a change in the regulation of the press, the inquiry has shown that there needs to be a transformation in the culture present in some areas of the industry; a culture which privileges the desire for a story and the need for tabloid sales over the simple matter of what is right and wrong.
It is essential that Lord Leveson’s report sets in motion this change whilst protecting those journalists who do conduct their work in accordance with the law and with common decency. We must remember that it was journalists working for The Guardian who exposed the full extent of the phone hacking scandal.
Regardless of the outcome of the inquiry, it is without doubt up to the press to restore public confidence in their industry. In a world where newspaper sales are falling, with people increasingly turning to online sources for news and current affairs, it is certain that in the next few years the industry will face its toughest challenge yet.