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Visiting Media Law Specialist Raises Leveson Inquiry Lessons

Visiting Media Law Specialist Raises Leveson Inquiry Lessons

By Alex Perrottet | Auckland
August 4, 2012

A visiting media law specialist has questioned why it took so long for police to take action in the British phone hacking scandal and has called on England to follow Ireland’s lead in media law reform.

Professor Duncan Bloy from Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies spoke to communications staff, lawyers and students at AUT University this week, describing the Leveson inquiry as the “hottest free show in town for the last nine months”.

Professor Bloy’s address came a week after the gathering of evidence formally concluded at the Leveson inquiry and as charges were laid against former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and six other journalists.

Lack of action
Analysing the history of the Leveson inquiry and the 2006 reports of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in response to Operation Motorman, Bloy questioned why authorities decided to hold back on bringing people to justice.

“If there had been action at that time, positive action, I don’t think we would have been discussing the issues that Sir Brian (Leveson) has had to consider in the past few months,” he said.

He said the scandal of hacking and "blagging" - obtaining data by deceptive means – was described by blog Guido Fawkes as “Britain’s biggest establishment cover up”.

He quoted the evidence former ICO investigator Alex Owens gave the inquiry, which read that his supervisors told him: “We can’t take the press on, they are too big for us”.

Bloy was referring to the reports named What Price Privacy? and What Price Privacy Now?, after the hacking and blagging operation.

He said the reports stated 305 journalists had been identified during Operation Motorman as “customers driving the illegal blagging trade”.

“Yet nothing was done by the authorities, by the media itself, by the police in 2006. That’s the question, why didn’t the police bring evidence to prosecute?”

'Public interest'
Professor Bloy said a great deal of legal decisions in the area of media law were underpinned on a judge’s decision about what the "public interest" might entail.

He said it was necessary to “first and foremost distinguish it from what is of interest to the public.”

Noting England’s new Defamation Bill is scheduled to be passed into law in the next parliamentary session, Professor Bloy said no new regulatory framework should "damage legitimate investigative journalism” in the public Interest.

Bloy also referred to Operation Elveden, which focused on journalists obtaining personal or private information from private sector organisations such as the police through bribery or other illicit means.

He said journalists paid investigators to obtain information on their behalf, both lawfully and unlawfully and that Scotland Yard had found two prison guards had allegedly been paid £35,000 and £14,000 respectively by News International, Trinity Mirror and others.

“The Metropolitan Police had said the majority of these stories revealed very limited material of genuine public interest,” he said, adding that it directly contradicted evidence given to the inquiry in January by a former editor of the Daily Mirror.

“He admitted his newspaper had paid prison officials for information but suggested that there had been a strong public interest in reporting the information. Well, what else could he say?”

Regulatory models
As Britain and other countries consider media regulation in the wake of the scandal, Professor Bloy mooted several options, but supported the Irish defamation reform on the basis of its own reported success.

He said the Irish approach involved a ‘statutory recognition’ of the 2008-established Press Council, with an ombudsman playing a mediation role. He said the mediation element was highlighted by the 2010 figures, which showed 325 complaints were lodged and 91 proceeded to adjudication.

Professor Bloy quoted Irish Press Ombudsman John Horgan, who gave evidence that since the Irish Defamation Act 2009 was passed, “statutory recognition did nothing to harm press freedom in Ireland”.

Professor Bloy said it involved the “necessary balancing of the right to publish and the complainant’s right to redress”.

He said media organisations in Ireland were not forced to join the Press Council but were open to legal action if they could not show that their own complaints process was not equal to that of the Press Council.

‘Elephant in room’
Professor Bloy also questioned why the internet did not feature much in the Leveson Inquiry and the current defamation bill, saying it was “the elephant in the room”.

“Nevertheless you would be hard pressed to spot the elephant in the subsequent proceedings,” he said.

“Despite the fact that the OECD in 2010 produced evidence to show that nearly 40 percent of news consumers in the UK use the internet for their news.
So it must be assumed that numbers will grow in the future.”

Professor Bloy generated discussion on contempt of court and online news, especially information held in online archives. He referred to cases where juries could access old reports of a defendant’s prior convictions. He said current laws that hold a publisher liable for keeping archived news reports available to the public online were archaic and could not last.

Professor Bloy is the author of several books on media and the law. He is visiting AUT University’s School of Communications Studies until the end of August.


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