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The theology of Leveson

07 December 2012

Ideas about law, sin, grace, and freedom are among the real questions raised by his report, argues Graham James

AT 2000 pages, the Leveson report makes the New Testament seem a lightweight document, at least in terms of bulk. Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry was the result of moral outrage. Anyone who believes that Britain's moral conscience as a nation is duller than it was might reflect on our collective response to the phone-hacking scandal.

The Guardian journalist Nick Davies had beavered away for months in his efforts to expose the widespread practice of phone-hacking at News International. No one took much notice for a long time, preferring either to deny his accusations, or to claim that they were part of a collective dislike of the Murdoch empire.

Twenty years ago, there was not much of a public outcry over what came to be known as "Camillagate". Unlawful access had been gained to private phone conversations between the Prince of Wales and the then Camilla Parker-Bowles. Any moral outrage was reserved for what was discovered, not the method of discovery. It was as if royal celebrities should expect that sort of thing.

Hacking in to Milly Dowler's phone, after she had disappeared, was a game-changer. She was a victim, not a celebrity. Phone- hacking itself became an evil, and the procession of celebrities at the Leveson inquiry took their opportunity well. They had every right to do so, but our collective conscience was animated when the victims were a murdered child and her family. As it turned out, among the thousands of people whose phones had been hacked, only a small minority were A-listers.

PUBLIC moral indignation is still enough to reshape our culture. The Leveson inquiry would not have existed otherwise. But it reports at a time when the regulation of the media is more challenging than ever because of what is known as media convergence.

We have had different regulatory regimes for different types of media. Broadcasting has been the most heavily regulated. The printed press has been more lightly regulated. The internet and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, have hardly been regulated at all, beyond being subject to criminal law.

Highly regulated television and radio, especially the BBC, are the most trusted media, notwithstanding the Jimmy Savile revelations or the Lord McAlpine débâcle. These events are extremely dangerous for the BBC, because they undermine trust. Yet the way in which the BBC has reported on itself indicates a level of self-criticism that no newspaper would replicate. No newspaper reporter has ever interviewed his editor in the way John Humphrys did George Entwistle.

The BBC licence fee means that public-sector broadcasting, to which we all contribute, must have very high standards of impartiality, which do not apply to a newspaper we choose to buy, or a website we choose to look at. This is why the print media have been largely self-regulating.

Also, no one has worked out how to regulate the internet at source. China and some other countries seek to use the blunt instrument of blocking online content. But that sort of authoritarian approach to regulation is hardly attractive, and, in any case, it is far from easy, and is not necessarily as effective as is claimed.

These different media platforms are gradually merging. Broadcasters and newspapers run online editions. The invitation to contact a television or radio programme via the internet is offered time and again. Newspapers as well as broadcasters rely on social media to offer comments and eye-witness reports.

Everyone can be a journalist. Most people possess a video camera, voice recorder, and communications device in their pocket in the form of a mobile phone. And telecoms are under yet another regulatory regime, overseen by OFCOM. Leveson has not really addressed the complexities caused by media convergence.

BRITISH newspapers have been very good at defending themselves from independent statutory regulation, while calling for it in almost every other area of life. The Leveson report must surely bring the current era of self-regulation to an end. We need a fully independent body, able to investigate the practices of the press without the trigger of a complaint bringing it into action. It must be properly resourced by the industry itself, but that does not mean that it needs to build a large bureaucracy.

To ensure that the independence of such a body is guaranteed by statute is a long way from state control of the press. Alongside the BBC Charter, there is an agreement with the Secretary of State covering the BBC's funding and regulatory duties, and laid before Parliament. This is much more than Leveson envisages, and yet the BBC is not a state broadcaster controlled by Parliament.

Any new regulation of the press must protect citizens from unfair and damaging portrayal in the press, and give them a proper chance of redress. It is the helplessness that members of the public feel when caught up in a big press story and are unfairly traduced which is not a necessary consequence of press freedom, but an abuse of it.

WE MUST not imagine, however, that regulation will put away sin. Christians understand that very well. Even where the press is much more heavily regulated, in relation to privacy, for example, injustices happen. In France, there are strict privacy laws, and yet they did not stop a French magazine publishing illegally obtained photos of the Duchess of Cambridge. The editor took the risk that the penalty under the law was worth bearing in the interest of massively increased circulation and profits.

Even the great British public can speak with two voices on these matters. The public release of photographs of Prince Harry in Las Vegas merited public disapproval, while there were almost 100 million Google searches in the UK for those same photos within 24 hours.

Law and sin, regulation and grace, freedom and our capacity to abuse it - these are the theological themes of the Leveson report. Law and regulation may temper the worst excesses of human behaviour, but they cannot make people good. It was the callous and casual disregard of the feelings and well-being of the targets of sensational press stories which was the worst revelation of the Leveson inquiry.

Last Friday, I suggested on Thought for the Day that an application of the Golden Rule - "Always treat others as you would have them treat you" - might have prevented this mess. The teaching of Jesus remains fresh and true.

WHILE all this is happening, the print media are in crisis. Total newspaper circulation is falling by five per cent a year, and is now 30 per cent less than it was a decade ago. Our regional newspapers are shedding journalists rapidly, and there are now more people working in the public-relations industry in Britain than there are in journalism.

The press gallery in our courts is often empty. Frequently, there is nobody to report on council meetings. It is the print media, for all their faults, that have often held our public institutions to account. It is hard to see social media replacing this function, and it leaves us with a potential democratic deficit.

While some national newspapers make large profits, and have followed practices that created the need for Leveson, the report acknowledges the much better conduct and integrity of regional and local newspapers. The national often has much to learn from the local.

Leveson is welcome, and the report is astonishingly thorough. But it is the largely hidden theological themes about regulation and grace, and law and freedom, that are the biggest issues of all. They are ones to which we will have to return, and soon.

The Rt Revd Graham James is the Bishop of Norwich. 

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