LONDON, UK — Sixteen months ago, Britons stood aghast as the phone-hacking scandal at the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid revealed a pattern of pervasive eavesdropping by media with close connections to leading politicians.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who was personally caught up in the blow-back, set up an independent judicial inquiry headed by Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson.
Releasing his report today in one of the most highly anticipated news events in decades, Leveson called for the statutory self-regulation of newspapers under a regulatory body with the power to impose million-pound fines, plus an amendment to data-protection laws that may make it easier to obtain reporters' notes and other research.
"I remain firmly of the belief that the British press — I repeat, all of it — serves the country very well for the vast majority of the time,” the judge said as he outlined his 2,000-page report compiled after months of testimony. But it’s too often “wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people.”
Witnesses included Cameron and his predecessors, phone hacking victims such as film star Hugh Grant and the parents of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, as well as Murdoch and former News of the World editors, some of whom now face criminal charges.
Some of the testimony — including disgraced former editor Rebekkah Brooks’s statement that Cameron had signed a text to her with “lots of love” — transfixed much of the English-speaking world.
Speaking to the House of Commons shortly after Leveson wrapped up, Cameron thanked him for his hard work, but expressed reservations about amending the data protection act.
"I have some serious concerns and misgivings on this recommendation," he said. "For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.”
“In this House, which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries,” he added, “we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line."
Cameron faces a delicate balancing act. Most newspapers support his Conservative Party and are uniformly against any statutory regulation.
The subtext of objections from the editors and owners of The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail is: This misbehavior is Murdoch's problem, let the courts deal with his illegal actions and let us carry on doing what we’ve always done.
The first question to Cameron in parliament today was from one of his own backbenchers, Sir Peter Tapsell, who said the problem was "bad men, some of them foreigners" who own newspapers in Britain and don't like the country — an opaque reference to the Australian-American Murdoch.
In a neat coincidence, former News of the World editor and onetime Cameron spin doctor Andy Coulson and Brooks — the ex-head of Murdoch's News International who was at the center of Cameron's country social life — appeared in court today on charges of making illegal payments to public officials.
Opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said he wants to move quickly to implement Leveson's recommendations, but it remains to be seen what Cameron will do.
One thing is certain: If the last week is anything to go by, the story will dominate newspapers for months. Speculation about what Leveson might say has overrun the press, as if the country were waiting for war to start. Indeed, the Guardian's headline today begins, "Leveson D-Day Dawns."
The coverage has been a triumph of new media over old. The story has been spun all over websites social media — in gazillions of words newspapers could never have afforded to put into print.
Nevertheless, Financial Times editor Lionel Barber gave some old-fashioned words of warning for his paper’s new media users in a staff memo circulated yesterday. "Please take note: we need to focus on reporting not comment," he wrote. "We will have commentary but it will stretch beyond 140 characters — and it will be written by seasoned journalists who have read and reflected on the report."
However, many practicing journalists didn’t wait for Leveson to release his conclusions to reflect on them — and decide that any statutory regulation is anathema.
Representing the libertarian right, Fraser Nelson, editor of the conservative weekly magazine the Spectator, announced in advance that his magazine wouldn’t submit to any such rules. The libertarian left's Nick Cohen, a columnist at the liberal Observer newspaper, posted and endorsed his statement on Facebook.
Those views represent the opinions of most who still hold regular jobs in journalism. However, their pre-emptive strikes against Leveson failed to anticipate one important development.
The judge called for a law that "for the first time would place a legal duty on the government to protect freedom of the press," a kind of First Amendment for Britain's unwritten constitution. (Perhaps Americans wouldn’t mind if the British government were to borrow theirs verbatim as a gift from a former colony: "Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…")
Commentary by journalists has also shown how far removed most British "hacks" (what they call themselves) stand on the issue from the public they seek to inform.
A recent Yougov poll showed almost 90 percent of the public in favor of some kind of statutory regulation of the press.
It’s ironic that the public is the unindicted co-conspirator in press malfeasance. After all, tabloid newspapers feed Britons' own insatiable appetite for tittle-tattle.
If millions of readers here (and, to be fair, around the world) weren't gasping for photos of famous nipples or bottoms, or bits of semi-invented gossip about rich actors melting down in public, or intrusive stories about grieving parents — especially attractive ones — the papers wouldn't bother with them. Perhaps they’d concentrate on reporting real news.
In print and online, journalism is a business first — and in business you have to serve your customers' needs if you want to survive. Readers want the gossip, so that's what they get.