The trial of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson began last week, reigniting the debate into the attitudes, actions and allegations of the editors of the now defunct News of the World. Rules into commenting on the events of an ongoing trial are stringent, and necessarily restrictive in order to enable us to give each defendant a fair trial; an integral part of modern democratic ideas. Whatever the outcome of this trial, there will be momentous changes into the governing rules and regulations of the journalistic world.
The issue into regulation of the press is an inherently contentious one; the ideals of a democracy crucially value the ideas of free speech, freedom of association and freedom of the press. Due to the allegations of phone hacking and bribery, either committed or commissioned by leading members of journalistic circles, the power of the press is being challenged. The issue of guilt within this field is one which should be left to the courts, not the media. The issue of where press regulation goes from here is one which must involve the press if any legitimacy is to be given towards the recommendations of Leveson, and the ultimate form these regulations will take.
Lord Justice Leveson, following a lengthy investigation, recommended that the Press should remain a self regulating body, with legislative backing to ensure that these regulations are upheld. He opposed the idea of government enforced control over what is published, as this could damage democracy. The Government, in response to these proposals, has set in motion plans for a Royal Charter, which would enshrine similar values, but without legislative backing. The Royal Charter would establish an independent regulator with the power to force apologies and £1 million fines. The press have vehemently opposed this plan, while the government has appeared equally intransigent.
…it can exonerate the guilty and punish the innocent…
Does this plan really impede upon democracy? Given the allegations of phone hacking, bribery and rampant disrespect which have been highlighted by the Leveson Inquiry, is it surprising that the Government is keen to appear as though it is morally cleansing the industry, and subsequently society? The power of the media is immeasurable; it can exonerate the guilty and punish the innocent. The Press is a form of governmental regulation; the egregious behaviour of Nixon was uncovered by journalists. If the Royal Charter forms a barrier to this safeguard then it is a serious danger. But, if it is used to prevent intrusive and perverse invasions of privacy then it can be justified.
The future of the press is in a state of flux, it has never been so unclear. Regulating the Press, an act which the Press has deemed to be an invasive attack on civil liberties, should only prevent the use of techniques which in themselves are abhorrent and damaging to democracy; phone hacking violates personal privacy, bribery violates the very basis of democratic accountability. The necessity for regulation is understandable, and as long as the autonomy and freedom of the press are upheld, then democracy is safe.