Freedom of the Press: Prime Minister David Cameron vs. Lord Justice Brian Leveson

A headline in yesterday's New York Times (November 30, 2012) caught my eye, "Seeing Threat, British Press Hails Cameron as Defender" by Sarah Lyall: "It is hard to find much common ground among Britain's squabbling, competing newspapers.

A headline in yesterday’s New York Times (November 30, 2012) caught my eye, “Seeing Threat, British Press Hails Cameron as Defender” by Sarah Lyall: “It is hard to find much common ground among Britain’s squabbling, competing newspapers. Not only do they naturally mistrust one another, but they also tend to divide along party lines, so that The Daily Telegraph, for instance, is generally pro-Tory, while The Guardian is generally pro-Labour. (The papers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation support whomever Mr. Murdoch supports.)”

The 1,987-page Leveson report, which included recommendations, was drafted in response to the hacking scandal. The article went on to report, “To provoke this shower of affection, Mr. Cameron had not solved the European financial crisis, nor had he brought peace to the Middle East. Instead, he had declared in Parliament that he was opposed to the main recommendation in the 1,987-page Leveson report on press culture and practices, unveiled Thursday: the establishment of a new system of press regulation that would be backed by parliamentary statute. He said that passing such a statute would be akin to ‘crossing the Rubicon’ and would subvert the principle of freedom of the press, and that he did not want to do that. Mr. Cameron’s stand was opposed by the opposition Labour Party and by the Liberal Democrats, the junior partners in his coalition government.”

The Financial Times (November 30, 2012) reported, “The misdeeds of the press were criminal” by Max Hastings: “I left the building three hours later with mixed feelings. It was sickening to read the catalogue of professional malpractices which have been routinely indulged, especially at News International, but in some degree by other newspaper groups too. Few of us have ever doubted that some titles’ executives and reporters behave like wild beasts. But it was dismaying to read in cold prose the judge’s recital of systemic indifference to truth, contempt for human dignity, about which his revulsion is entirely justified. But I recoil from Lord Justice Leveson’s conclusions. He acquits every other party in society’s devilish bargains with the media – politicians, policemen, public figures and readers – attributing all ills to newspapers….Mr. Cameron himself is unwilling to bear the odium for breaking the centuries-old tradition of British press freedom, including its right to be irresponsible. He sees more clearly than the Westminster lynch mob how hard it will be to draft and implement legislation. A core point should be constantly restated: what took place at News International was not a breach of press ethics but sustained criminality…Statutorily backed regulation seems an extravagant remedy for press excesses-provided that the criminal law is properly enforced.”

I decided that I would find where Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation, who are at the center of this controversy, stood and turned to The Wall Street Journal (November 29, 2012), “Leveson’s Media Guardians”: The ultimate judges of the media anywhere are not some mythical wise and just guardians. In a free society, which Britain still purports to be, the real guardians are media consumer and the courts. The press is not now beyond scrutiny or accountability, as the reaction to the News of the World hacking scandal that prompted the Leveson inquiry has shown. News Corp (which also owns this newspaper) closed down the 168-year-old paper and is paying a fearsome price in damaged reputation and legal and settlement costs. The British press is in many ways the envy of the world, and its freedom is crucial to keeping Britain free. It is unruly, sometimes unreliable, and has even on occasion crossed the line into criminality. Not everything it publishes is admirable; some of it may be inexcusable. But that is for readers, advertisers and, when laws are broken, for the courts to judge.”

Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and others who have been charged with various illegal activities should be judged in the courts. In both the United Kingdom and the United States we have a history of freedom of the press, and in spite of my own personal outrage over the criminal acts committed by the tabloid press in the search of headlines, I find myself applauding David Cameron’s stand. He stood apart from Nick Clegg, his coalition partner, and the Labour Opposition leader, Ed Miliband. All of us in the media should continue to be vigilant in protecting the freedom of the press. It would be much more difficult to regain if it were lost.