30/11/2012 | If you thought Argentina was the only country where press issues were setting the pace of the political agenda, then you’d better read the British press these days.
Following a public inquiry spanning for 17 months, Lord Justice Brian Leveson produced on Thursday a 1,987-page report that recommends the introduction of the first press law in Britain since the 17th Century.
The Leveson Inquiry called by Prime Minister David Cameron had a massive scope. It sought to “examine the culture, practices and ethics of the media, and the relationship of the press with the public, police and politicians.” The existing preconditions for the Prime Minister to make the move were simple: the British pressed had destroyed its credibility with the public. Phone-hacking had brought down the century-old News of the World last year, but the Leveson investigation reported there was also “recklessness in prioritizing sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected.” Whenever a story was rich enough to feed audiences hungry for gory private details, the press showed “a significant disregard for accuracy.”
The phone hacking on ordinary Brits meant the crossing of the Rubicon for the British press. Instead of targeting the establishment, the press teamed up with corrupt members of the police to turn ordinary people who had been victims of personal dramas into fodder for public sensation. The Leveson investigation showed the hacking was only the tip of a rock solid iceberg connecting the media powers-that-be —with the Rupert Murdoch Empire at the forefront— with politicos. Over the last three decades, Leveson said, British politicians in the ruling party and the opposition have had “too close a relationship with the press in a way that has not been in the public interest.”
The Argentine media and political establishment would be well advised to follow the entire process leading to and sprouting from Leveson closely. A four-year-plus political war starring the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the country’s national media champion Grupo Clarín reaches its symbolic climax on December 7 and, in the process, the establishment continues to shed credibility in the hope that the courts —and most especially the Supreme Court— will sort out for them the conflict over the legality and applicability of the 2009 Broadcast Media Act.
Be it that it ends up introducing legislation or not, the Leveson Inquiry acted as a sort of Truth and Reconciliation Commission for British press and politics. Testifying under oath, media and political big fish joined the process in seeming cathartic satisfaction. One unforgettable moment had the very Murdoch offering an apology, “I failed,” he said, and then added, after a long uncomfortable silence, “and I am very sorry about it”).
The Argentina media has not victimized its public (yet) but has over the last few years done a good share of work to contribute to the public’s misinformation, given a stubborn division between blind critics of the government and staunch defenders. In that context, the local press increasingly risks shooting itself in the foot with unforced errors like the one made by Grupo Clarín last week, when it mentioned a group of pro-government journalists in a criminal case filed against government officials on charges of allegedly conducting a campaign to promote “collective violence” against the media giant.
If Leveson came to Argentina he would find a less cooperative atmosphere. One of the stumbling blocks in the implementation of the Media Act is that the government and the main player in the media industry (Grupo Clarín) have seemingly severed all channels of communication.
Still, with all the civility showed by the Leveson process, there remains to be seen whether the catharsis leads to reform. Prime Minister Cameron has got cold feet about the press law proposal. “For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land,” he told the House of Commons. The legislation, he added, “has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.” Cameron argued the Leveson principles could be achieved without the Leveson proposal. His deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg does not seem to agree and the ruling coalition in Britain is not on the verge of splintering . Labour favours statutory rules for the press, as proposed by the report.
All agree, however, that status quo is not an option. This is what their constituencies are saying. In the days prior to the presentation of the report, a poll showed 79 percent of the British public are in favour of establishing press regulation by law and scrap a system of self-regulation (which in Britain materialized in the form of the Press Complaints Commission) largely blamed for having overlooked the hacking abuses. Over 80 percent of the people surveyed conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Media Standards Trust said that national papers should be forced to abide by a new press law.
This is what happens, press bigwigs of the world, when you turn your back on your most important asset, credibility, for a fairly long period of time. When a systemic crisis escalates, you need to set up a new system. At the opening of the hearings in November 2011, Leveson explained, The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: Who guards the guardians?” The answer is still open, there and here.
Marcelo J. García (@mjotagarcia) is a former Herald writer and coordinates the Communications Department at the Society for International Development (www.sidbaires.org.ar)