Ethics and the Media

After the Leveson Inquiry

Event Date: 13th February 2014 - details of event listing and a podcast and video can be found here 

Photos by Asuka Kageura 

Onora O’Neill, one of Britain’s leading moral philosophers says politicians, the press and the public have failed to grapple with the tension between media regulation and press freedom in the wake of the Leveson inquiry.

“What we’ve seen,” Baroness O’Neill told an audience at the LSE, “is a massive but pretty confused conversation of press freedom since the phone hacking scandal erupted.”

Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Lord Justice Leveson in the summer of 2011 to investigate troublesome revelations of ethical breaches in the national press. The inquiry concluded thousands of people were victims of privacy intrusions. Celebrities — including actor Hugh Grant and singer James Blunt— and ordinary people struck by tragedy such as Gerry McCann, father of missing girl Madeleine, testified about having their phones hacked by tabloids.

Lord Leveson’s November 2012 report chastised the press for having "wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people.” Among other things, his report recommended:

• Continuing self-regulation of newspapers. The government should not interfere with what papers publish.
• The newspaper industry must create a new press standards body, complete with a new code of conduct for journalists
• Legislation to ensure the independence and effectiveness of the new press council.
• The new body needs to be seen by the public to deal with complaints independently and seriously.

In March 2013, the main political leaders in the House of Commons, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, agreed to set up a new watchdog by royal charter. The proposed legislation can impose million-pound fines on publishers and demand upfront apologies. O’Neill, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a crossbench member of the House of Lords, says she was “surprised” by the decision to pursue what she called a “rather archaic” charter.

Still, O’Neill who is the chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission but was speaking in a personal capacity, notes the royal charter has strong cross-party support and would be hard for politicians to alter after coming into effect. Newspapers have called some of the suggestions unworkable and have argued the charter amounts to government interference in a free press. But O’Neill’s 30 minute lecture rejected what she called “naive claims” by the newspaper industry, asserting that the proposed regulation is an unacceptable interference.

“Those assertions simply beg questions because they don’t tell us which conception of press freedom is at stake, which can be justified and which cannot be justified,” O’Neill said.

“I don’t think we can make headway in answering this, which is the central question of our times,” she added, “without explaining for ourselves why one or another or several conceptions of press freedom can be justified and we need to do that before we can say anything useful about which forms of press and media regulation are acceptable.”

O’Neill stressed “dogmatic” and “repetitious" claims about press freedom from the newspaper industry have not advanced the debate. She believes the public discussion surrounding the proposed royal charter has “failed to distinguish different conceptions of freedom of expressions, different justifications and their different limitations. And they haven’t given adequate reasons for one over the other.”

Drawing on the thinking of English poet and polemicist John Milton and the philosopher John Stuart Mill, O’Neill pointed out that so-called “truth seeking” in law and academia are often ground in professional norms and ethics.

O’Neill suggested investigative journalism requires the shield of a free press for its “truth seeking” efforts. But “discipline and standards” come hand and hand with that freedom, she contends. “Truth seeking, including the needs of truly investigative journalism, are, I suspect, likely to support appropriately regulated, rather than [a] wholly unregulated [newspaper industry].”

Media lawyer Gavin Millar QC — who champions media freedom and represents many newspapers and journalists, including Shock-jock Jon Gaunt — calls the proposed royal charter unworkable.

Millar argued a democratic society needs a free press, citing attempts last summer by the coalition government to stop The Guardian from publishing top-secret NSA documents about surveillance.

“I don’t particularly trust governments or politicians,” Millar told the LSE audience. The London-based barrister, who often travels the world championing free speech, also thinks the proposed tightening of media regulation in the UK sends a message to countries with weak press freedom. “Its a gift to oversee repressive regimes,” stressed Millar.

Professor George Brock with City University’s journalism programme also challenged O’Neill’s arguments. The former self-described “working journalist” argued that ethics outlined by O’Neill don’t justify imposing regulation.

Quoting journalist and author Mario Vargas Llosa, Brock defended press freedom: “Scandal-driven journalism is the perverse stepson of the culture of freedom. You cannot suppress it without dealing a deadly blow to freedom.”

Brock proposed tightening privacy laws and looking again at expanding public interest rules: “We still have to find a way to make media ethics practically effective while allowing the media to perform its main in function,” Brock told the audience.

In the Q + A session, O’Neill also took aim at foreign ownership of newspaper in the UK. She pointed out that most tabloids are owned by non-UK citizens who often do not live in the country. She criticized foreign-owned newspapers for being allowed to debate taxation, while being “under the control of those who don’t pay it, unlike the rest of us.”

The Baroness hoped a future government will have the courage to tighten foreign ownership rules.