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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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