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Phone Hacking and Press Regulation: Increased Accountability or the Destruction of Liberty?

There has long been a campaign in the United Kingdom to oversee the transformation of the written press, namely, to surround it with more stringent legislation. This issue has especially come into focus over the last decade following the most recent News of the World Phone Hacking Scandal of 2009-11. The ensuing Leveson Inquiry between 2011 to 12 dug deeper into the unethical practices of journalists and uncovered, in short, that these comprised an alarmingly central part of the profession.

At the time, Lord Leveson made a series of recommendations punctuated by his suggestion that a new regulatory body, underpinned by legislation, should hold the written press to account. Resultantly, then-Prime Minister David Cameron decided to set up a new regulatory body (IPSO) but refused to throw legislation behind it.

Over eight years have passed, and Lord Leveson’s hope that his inquiry will not become a “footnote in history” appears to have sadly failed. The report enacted no change of any real substance, leaving those voices calling for stringent statutory regulation of the press just as loud as prior to the inquiry.

In reconsidering the topic almost a decade after it hit the headlines, I think there is an important distinction to be drawn regarding the ethics of the press. There are two different issues at stake: the methods through which journalists attain their information and the content that they publish. It is worth looking at these issues individually and analysing whether they demand more stringent regulation of the press.

Journalists’ Methods to Attain Information

The first of these issues is the one that initially sparked the outrage which brought this debate into public consciousness. The contention is that the press, in their relentless pursuit to uncover exclusive stories, use unethical means of accessing their information, as exhibited notably by the hacking of mobile phones. The Leveson Inquiry highlighted how common this practice has become in the profession. Certain tabloid newspapers were exposed to be illegally accessing the voicemails of individuals from celebrities to the families of murder victims, in order to gather inside scoops. Beyond this practice of phone hacking, however, many who gave evidence during Lord Leveson’s Inquiry revealed unsavoury details such as finding journalists parked outside their houses, looking through their bins, and chasing them through the streets.

The natural reaction for anybody is one of disgust and abhorrence; these actions aptly befit the term “gutter press” and are unquestionably immoral. However, the answer to this lies not in the regulation of the press but in the enforcement of pre-existing laws. When I say such actions are immoral, this is only half the story. They are also illegal and there is existing legislation to deal with it; namely laws against harassment as well as the Data Protection Act of 1998 which prohibits the unauthorised access of an individual’s mobile phone.

Journalists swagger their way past these laws, viewing them as dormant. Unfortunately, they are right. It is thus time that more serious punishments - financial, custodial, or both - are enforced for such crimes in order to prevent the gung-ho approach of the press. Put simply, the punishment must become enough of a deterrent to enact a cultural change within the profession. Thus, the law does not need changing, but rather requires more stringent enforcement in the first place.

Published Content

The second issue, which was somewhat conflated with the first by those pushing an agenda of regulation, relates to the content produced by the written press. Campaigns such as “Hacked Off” appear to be driving at something more sinister than simply holding naughty phone-tapping journalists to account; they are striving for a regulation of the content of the written press.

Those pursuing this line of argument claim that the content of these newspapers meet the standard of “public interest journalism”, implying that stories of celebrity hypocrisy and gossip are not newsworthy. This journalistic criterion loftily advocated by those more educated is at best intellectual snobbery, and at worst, the destruction of freedom of expression. This condition is so utterly arbitrary that it can be suited to fit any agenda that those in charge deem necessary. Whether you personally find these stories newsworthy or not is irrelevant to the more fundamental principle at stake here; namely, that the press should be afforded the right to freedom of expression.

Some find these reservations to be unfounded. An article published in The Guardian around the Leveson period posited that the written press ought to be subject to the same restrictions as the broadcast media which is policed by the Office of Communications (Ofcom). This is a body which falls within the remit of the government, specifically the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS). I would propose that the desire for free press is greatly damaged if we allow it to be regulated by a government department which simply cannot be impartial.

However, the aforementioned article in The Guardian finds these conclusions fanciful, suggesting that it is “not credible to suggest that broadcasters such as Sky News, ITV, or the BBC have their agenda dictated by the government of the day”. The statement purports a gross inaccuracy, something made evident by the total refusal to scrutinise the extreme measures taken by the government during the current pandemic. We should neither find this standard suitable for broadcast media nor for the written press.

This is an issue that has shocked the nation, and, considering some of the behaviour that has been uncovered, rightly so. But let us not lose our minds and give in to a reaction of hysteria, for it appears that much of the problem can be solved through the enforcement of pre-existing laws rather than subjecting the written press to more statutory regulation.


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