It’s been a turbulent few years for the British press following the phone hacking revelations committed by Rupert Murdoch’s News International (primarily the now defunct, News of the World) but Sunday was D-Day for British MPs in deciding what action is to be taken from Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into the scandal and media ethics in general.
First brought to light in 2005, the intercepting of telephone calls and voicemail messages appeared limited to celebrities, politicians and the British Royal Family. Victims that took out cases against the media conglomerate included, but not limited to, Hugh Grant, Jude Law, Sienna Miller, supermodel Elle Macpherson, former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and former culture minister, Tessa Jowell. However, the scandal erupted again in 2011 when it emerged that personal information about victims of crime and their families was being collected and accessed by phone hacking. These included the voicemail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, relatives of British soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, victims of the 7/7 London bomb attacks and media campaigner, Sara Payne whose daughter, Sarah, was murdered in West Sussex by paedophile Roy Whiting in July 2000. These fresh allegations lead to the closure of News of the World, the arrest of a number of key figures in News International, multiple investigations of other News Corporation media outlets, as well as a public government inquiry, the Leveson inquiry, the recommendations of which were debated in parliament on Sunday.
The Leveson inquiry recommended a creation of a legal “backstop regulator” that would oversee a restructured press watchdog. This regulator would not be controlled by either the press or the politicians. The recommendation is supported by both Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, and Labour’s Ed Miliband. However, Cameron, along with newspaper editors, is against it.
Hugh Grant has long been a vocal supporter of press reform and has worked hard on the Hacked Off campaign to bring about the public inquiry. He called it “a historic day for Britain’s newspapers and the nature of their relationship with the public” in an opinion piece for The Observer, and encouraged British Prime Minister, David Cameron and fellow parliamentarians, to “grab this opportunity… [and] be brave”. He also warned that “If MPs fail, we will all be back here in 10 years’ time with another inquiry after more newspaper abuses of innocent people”. He called Cameron out saying that “Staying on good terms with Rupert Murdoch is more important” than standing up for “thousands of members of the public who have been trashed in Britain’s newspapers”.
Late Sunday afternoon a consensus was reached and a fresh round of press regulation reforms will be introduced. The UK government announced that British papers will be regulated by a watchdog that will be completely independent of the media. Thought to be the toughest in the world, fines of up to £1 million would be handed down to the worst offenders. And, a relief to supporters of the recommendation, the only legal statute, put in place to prevent any possible corruption to freedom of speech, is in relation to the rights of ministers to changes the rules in the future.
Not surprising, key newspaper groups have refused to endorse the proposals. A group statement from News International, Associated Newspapers (publishers of the Daily Mail), the Telegraph media group and Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell, states that the proposals feature “several deeply contentious issues which have not yet been resolved with the industry”.