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Monday, Feb. 20, 2012

Media and law enforcement


LONDON — The revelation last year that journalists at the News of the World, a Sunday paper, owned by News Corp., had been involved extensively in hacking into the mobile phones and the voice mail of celebrities led to the closure of this populist paper. Since such hacking is illegal in Britain, News Corp. has been forced to pay large sums in compensation to famous people whose phones were hacked.

Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp. (incorporated in the United States) and his son, James Murdoch, chairman of Sky TV in Britain, were summoned by a parliamentary committee to account for the company's handling of the scandal. They apologized, but the scandal has continued to reverberate.

David Cameron, the British prime minister was embarrassed. Andy Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World, had been appointed as his press secretary. Coulson had to resign this position and was one of the News International executives arrested for their role in these illegal activities.

To defuse a popular clamor for curbs on the media, the government set up a judicial inquiry headed by a senior judge to investigate the issues and make recommendations on remedial action.

Lord Justice Leveson, on the recommendation of the head of the judiciary, was appointed to lead the inquiry. With the assistance of senior lawyers, Leveson has been hearing evidence from celebrities whose phones have been hacked as well as from editors and senior figures in the media.

Evidence given to the inquiry has showed that journalists from other populist newspapers as well as some more serious journals condoned illegal methods in seeking exclusive stories.

Many celebrities complained vociferously about the media's invasion of their private lives. While most editors were contrite about illegal activities by their employees, they put up a strong defense of Britain's free press and were unanimous in rejecting moves to introduce statutory controls, which might be used to limit investigative journalism and the exposure of political and administrative blunders and corruption.

Britain, while it has stringent rules to protect private data such as bank accounts and health records, does not have the sort of privacy rules that in France, for instance, prevent the media from delving into the private life of politicians. Britain does, however, have libel laws, which, in the view of some in the media, limit what can safely be reported. As the costs of bringing a libel action are high, only wealthy people can afford to institute cases; this leads to inequitable outcomes.

Editors and journalists, in giving evidence to the inquiry, have pointed out that newspapers, broadcasting and TV are not the only way in which the public receive news. The role of the Internet has grown exponentially. Many people get their news on iPhones. Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites provide almost instantaneous information about events and personalities.

The editors argued that it would be unfair to apply rules to the established media while ignoring these unofficial channels. But it is far from clear how such social networking sites can be controlled without destroying Internet freedoms.

The Leveson inquiry is about to turn its attention to relations between the media and the police. The police had been dilatory in their investigations of phone hacking. It was suggested that an understanding had been reached between representatives of News Corp. and the police that inquiries would be limited to the egregious case of a journalist and a private investigator who had hacked into the private phones of Princes William and Harry.

When it became clear that phone hacking was much more widespread than this single case implied, the police were forced to extend their investigation and officers responsible for what seemed to many observers a coverup had to resign.

Fortuitously or not, just before the inquiry could begin to probe the complex relations between News International and the police, a number of senior journalists at the Sun, a populist daily also belonging to News Corp., were arrested together with two officials from the Ministry of Defense and a police officer on suspicion of corrupt practices. It seems probable that police officers were paid (or perhaps provided with other sweeteners) by some journalists to reveal details of current investigations.

Cozy relations between News Corp. executives and those in authority clearly existed at the political level. Members of the Blair and Brown Labour governments were keen to keep their connections with Rupert Murdoch in the hope that, by so doing, his papers would report favorably on government policies. This situation did not change materially when the coalition government was set up in 2010.

David Cameron cultivated the Murdoch press. The Liberal Democrats were, however, left out in the cold and the Murdoch papers, including The Times, have taken every opportunity to snipe at them.

Rupert Murdoch, formerly an Australian and now a U.S. citizen, is a Euro-skeptic. His papers generally play the same tune.

Lord Justice Leveson, so far, has not indicated his likely recommendations, although he has made it clear that the existing toothless press-complaints commission needs replacement by a more effective body. He has shown that he values a free press able to expose scandals.

The Leveson inquiry and its recommendations are important not only for Britain; other democratic societies can learn from our problems and how we decide to tackle them.

Japan, in particular, needs to think carefully about the often too-cozy relationships between journalists and government departments through the kisha club system. To outsiders there often seems to be an understanding in Japan that any attempt to expose failures in Japan's system of government reflects badly on Japan and should be cloaked over. The Fukushima disaster may have worked to curb this dangerous tendency.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain's ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.


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