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U.K. press report fish-wrap?

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In July 2011, a muckraking journalist at the Guardian revealed that employees of the much bigger News of the World had illegally accessed the telephone messages of a girl who turned out to have been murdered. Other grim revelations followed.

For a few wild days, it seemed as though every paranoid theory about illegality and coverup in Fleet Street was proving correct.

Prime Minister David Cameron demanded an inquiry. Lord Justice Leveson, an appeals court judge, was chosen to conduct a full review of the press and recommend ways of taming its worst abuses.

The problem with asking a judge to investigate something, however, is that he eventually will produce a report.

Leveson's report, released on Nov. 29, broadly criticizes reporters, newspaper proprietors, police and politicians.

The practice of hacking cell telephones, it says, was widely known and tolerated.

The press is often thuggish, harrying some people who are regarded as newsworthy only because their children have disappeared or committed suicide.

The Press Complaints Commission, an industry-funded body that deals with gripes against the newspapers, is largely toothless. Something tougher is required, the judge argues.

He proposes a new body that would be more independent of the newspaper industry than the PCC but also, in theory, free from political meddling -- it could include working editors. It would also provide a cheap forum for resolving libel disputes.

Alarmingly for the press, the judge concludes that legislation is necessary to set up the new outfit.

He rejects proposals from Lord Black, chairman of the Press Standards Board of Finance, which currently funds the PCC, who argued newspapers could be bound into a tougher regulatory system by voluntary contracts. Most newspapers have lined up behind these proposals.

Leveson wonders, however, what would prevent a newspaper owner from simply walking away.

The judge had two other inflammatory suggestions.

First, the new body should regularly be assessed by Ofcom, a quasi-nongovernmental organization that currently regulates television and radio broadcasters rather stringently. Ofcom could step in if it fails.

Second, he suggested a limit on a single newspaper group's share of the market. If enacted, this could have the perverse effect of punishing one firm for the failure of its competitors.

The report largely clears Cameron, who had been embarrassed by revelations of his chummy relations with senior newspaper executives such as Rebekah Brooks, News International's former boss, who is now facing criminal charges related to telephone hacking.

It still gives him a political headache, however. Cameron does not want a press law, and would prefer the industry to come up with a tough alternative. He fears a slippery slope to state meddling.

Ofcom is a powerful regulatory body, he has pointed out, and "we should be trying to reduce concentrations of power."

Labour Leader Ed Miliband is keen on tougher regulation and would embrace a law imposing it.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democratic leader and deputy prime minister, also takes a harder line than his coalition partner.

Cameron's own party is split. Some senior ministers and many old hands fervently oppose parliamentary meddling on principle. A significant number of Tory MPs, many of them newly arrived, are more amenable, though, and there could be a parliamentary majority for Leveson's proposals.

If they are enacted, the result will be neither the demolition of press freedom that newspapers have warned against, nor the brave, well-behaved press victims want to see.

Leveson's proposal to create a body that could hear libel cases cheaply is a good way of compelling newspapers to sign on to it.

There are great dangers in a press law, however, and the suggestion that Ofcom should oversee the new body is worrying. Regulation has an alarming tendency to creep. The entire press will be bound by rules set up for tabloids, and the celebrity-quizzing judge showed scant interest in serious journalism.

Or, indeed, in the media industry's future. Social media, blogs and news websites, some of them run by newspapers, are rising and bringing new problems with them. Should an offensive blog post be treated in the same way as an offensive article on a newspaper website? How about a comment or a tweet? Does it still make sense to regulate the press, as opposed to all public writing?

The lawyers and politicians grappling with these questions got little guidance from Leveson, who describes online regulation as "problematic." His report already seems dated.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 3, 2012 $sourceSection0

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