Thursday, December 6, 2012

Two National Government Inquiries - regulation

Two National Government Inquiries into press and media behavior with one response – regulation. 

The UK and Australian Governments conducted broad ranging investigations into the performance of news organizations and journalists in their respective nations. The final reports are now out: An inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press (Leveson Report, 29 November 2012 levesoninquiry) and the Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation (Finkelstein Report, 28 February 2012 Australian Finkelstein). The Australian report showed its colors by subtitling itself, Report to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. It was arguably forward looking, while the UK inquiry was reviewing history. 
Indeed, on 13 July 2011 Prime Minister David Cameron told the UK Parliament the reasons why the inquiry was being held. It was impossible to avoid the role News International and the now defunct News of the World played in bringing about the inquiry.  Leveson’s report started with the PM’speech. In republishing the speech to Parliament Leveson allowed Cameron’s words to repeat the allegation. The first line of Leveson reads, as did the first line of Cameron’s speech to Parliament:
“In recent days, the whole country has been shocked by the revelations of the phone
hacking scandal.” (page 1). Or as they say in Coventry, ‘Hello Rupert!’

 Leveson was directed by the Terms of Reference. And while the case was generated by the straw that broke the camel’s back, phone hacking, the peppering of the report with direct references to News International makes for a sorry tale of journalistic failure at an institutional level. The first part of the report Terms of Reference became its title:
1.       To inquire into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press… (page 4)

It is impossible to miss the point that the target was News International.

The second part of the inquiry will examine the extent of unlawful or improper conduct
at the News of the World and other newspapers… (page 4) …
(c) the extent to which the current policy and regulatory framework has failed
including in relation to data protection; (page 5)…
3. To inquire into the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International,
other newspaper organisations and, as appropriate, other organisations within the
media, and by those responsible for holding personal data. (Page 5)

It’s easy to criticise an institution with poor professional practices like News International. It is much more difficult to reform an entire system.
As I have noted previously on the Uprising blog, the challenge for newspaper journalism is digitization. Newspapers and the journalists who work in them are not in a happy place these days. It is pretty easy to see how the phone hacking scandal took place: digital technologies allowed reasonably smart people to gain information that had previously been private and then use that private information to sell newspapers, in public. 
How can a newspaper system be reformed when it is based on sixteenth century technology? 
The response to that question has multiple levels.
The first is that criminal acts have been determined to be just that and the editors and journalists from the News of the World will have to explain their phone hacking behaviour in court. That will be significant because the laws that apply to data in the digital era are not clearly transferable.
Criminals are redefined in the new digital context.  Historical antecedents for criminal redefinitions associated with new technology: when the printing press emerged, when radio started playing popular music and pirate radio stations went offshore…
Here is a hypothetical question: How long will it be before cell phone hacking is legal?
Second, philosophically the challenge is how to deploy jurisprudence in a situation where it is still in formation. The answer is that no one should be treated in the way people were treated in the UK phone hacking scandal. Jurisprudence is a low level solution to the social problems that emerge from the unregulated Internet.  
Third, elsewhere I have written about the way wilful neglect plays out.  Predator Drones, Wilful Neglect 
This is a bigger issue than what we can ever hope to cover, although it may be helpful to assess traditional media in the light of new media and see how wilful neglect is always part of the dilemma of liberalism – what types of human action will civil society tolerate? The challenge of the Internet is that it allows users to overlook previously unacceptable forms of human behaviour because they appear in the Internet context, not the print media context. The Internet offers new opportunities for predatory and pecuniary action, including redefinitions of privacy and publicness. It magnifies and redefines these terms and the concepts associated with them. 
It is hardly surprising then that the UK and Australian inquiries both opted for regulation, as a statutory system of public interest concerns.
Leveson recommended an independent self regulator for the UK…but as I write that is in the process of becoming a system of non statutory regulation. guardian leveson comment1
It is also no surprise that the majority of media owners, practitioners and many journalists have opposed regulation.
In contrast there are those who know the system from the inside and recognise the need for a new method. Please see my blog November 17, 2011 about Eric Beecher’s call for a public press funding system in Australia.Beecher See also Lachlan Murdoch on his grandfather, Keith, Rupert’s father. Lachlan
 In Australia the call was for a system ‘To rectify existing and emerging weaknesses in the current regulatory structures it is recommended that there be established an independent statutory body which may be called the ‘News Media Council’, to oversee the enforcement of standards of the news media…’ (p. 290).
The Australian recommendation set the cat amongst the pigeons as well. This inquiry set out to make sense of new media. In contrast Leveson set out to understand what happened in the phone hacking scandal and where possible offer a political solution to the view that News international has unreasonable influence in the UK. These were two very different inquiries.
 In sharing outcomes that recommended regulation as a solution both inquiries reinforced my view that we need an expanded public education campaign about regulation.