Following the scandal that ensued when it was revealed earlier this year that News of the World reporters had hacked into mobile phone messages and interfered with a police investigation, Prime Minister David Cameron called for a major investigation of media practices. He said it was essential to get to the bottom of a ‘firestorm’ of problems, and put a stop to the misuse of journalistic power.
Sir Brian (Lord Justice) Leveson has been given the task of taking evidence and handing down a ruling on issues relating to media coverage, the law and the parameters that should define news that is “in the public interest” and that which infringes on the rights of citizens. Before the inquiry really got started, the media was warned that Leveson and his assistants will be watching closely to make sure the press does not attack or belittle any witnesses who come forward to testify.
The opposing forces in the forthcoming testimony are those who seem to believe that journalists should have no restrictions on tactics or on what they present as news, and those who feel that the power of the press is a dangerous weapon that needs to be wielded with caution and not at the discretion of any tabloid looking for headlines.
During the next twelve months, Lord Justice Leveson will be able to hear the testimony of alleged victims, including the parents of Milly Dowler, the teenager who was abducted and subsequently murdered as a police investigation was in progress. He will also be able to demand the submission of relevant documents from the files of the defunct newspaper and its parent corporation, News International.
Reporters and staff of the offending publications will be called to testify under oath, with the threat of fines or jail if the judge determines they have not told the truth. In his statement at the start of the inquiry, the Prime Minister said those found guilty of misconduct would never work in journalism again.
Hearings are now underway at the Royal Courts of Justice in London with testimony from victims of hacking by the media; later hearings will address the extent of media misconduct and how it should be curtailed. That investigation will examine the regulatory process currently in effect, such as it is, and presumably make recommendations for its improvement.
At present, there are 53 alleged victims on the roster who will testify and have the right to cross-examine opposing witnesses. They will have the right to representation by a solicitor, and will be allowed to make opening and closing statements if they so choose. Judge Leveson stressed his intention to guarantee their freedom from any type of media harassment, and warned that if such harassment is found it will weigh in his final decision.
Robert Jay QC is council to the inquiry, and delivered an opening statement in which he also warned that the press as an entity is capable of manipulating the information that goes out to the public. He said that the media’s power may well be one reason that many politicians hesitate to question or publicly disagree with some of the most egregious misconduct.
Mr. Jay went on to say that the core of this issue is the matter of just what ‘news’ can be justified as “in the public interest”, and he stated that in the case of phone hacking by people who report the news, there can be no justification, certainly not in the case that is presently before the court.