Danger in British press revamp: Louw

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Johannesburg -

Lord Justice Brian Leveson's revamp of the British press regulator contains dangers for press freedom, SA Press Council chairman Raymond Louw said on Wednesday.

“Leveson, who said his proposal was based on a proposal by the British press industry, has proposed a self-regulatory system composed of 'independent' people but excluding editors,” Louw said in a statement.

“It has some similarities with the new press regulation process to be introduced in South Africa. The big differences are that Leveson wants the British regulator 'underpinned' by laws that will ensure the British government 'protects press freedom' and give the regulator legal recognition.”

Louw said he and other journalists saw dangers in some of these recommendations.

Leveson released his four-volume report after conducting a 16-month inquiry into the role of the press and police in the British phone-hacking scandal.

Currently the British Press Complaints Commission is composed of editors and public representatives, but Leveson ruled against editors continuing in this role.

However, there were serious deficiencies in Leveson's report.

“He inexplicably exonerated the police for failing to investigate the extent of phone hacking and prosecuting those responsible, apart from one reporter and a private investigator working for the News of the World who were jailed but later compensated by the paper,” said Louw.

“He ascribed police failures to pursue phone-hacking investigations over a four year period to 'insufficiently thought-through decisions' and to pressures caused by the need for police to concentrate on anti-terrorist work which resulted in a 'perfectly reasonable decision to limit prosecutions'.”

Leveson rejected suggestions that improper influence was exerted on the police because of a close relationship between a senior police officer and a deputy editor.

He came to the conclusion that “more rigorous application of the criminal law does not and will not provide a solution” to illegal phone hacking, Louw said.

“He came to this conclusion despite several people being arrested in connection with phone hacking and are now facing charges in court. Britain’s Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was rejected as having failed,” Louw said.

According to Leveson it was a complaints-handling body with inadequate powers and “aligned to and a champion of the press’s interests”.

If such a complaint had been directed to the SA Press Council, it would have reported the incident to the police and demanded it be investigated and prosecuted.

The PCC did not do this, Louw said.

He said some of Leveson's recommendations raised important questions.

“The spectre of politicians using the 'underpinning' legislation to provide the levers to interfere or place controls on the press is an extremely worrying one,” he said.

“Another question is how will an 'independent' regulator be achieved?”

The fear that fines Leveson wanted to impose on content and the awarding of costs to one of the parties in certain circumstances may give rise to licensing of journalists. This was rejected by journalists as a forerunner of press control, said Louw.

“The insistence on public representatives and the rejection of editors from the regulator also raises the issue of whose values will be dominant in exercising decisions on press professional conduct.

“Will the public and not journalists set the standards of journalists’ ethical conduct and decide which stories should not be published? Will some of those decisions amount to censorship?,” asked Louw. - Sapa


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