Learning from News of the World

- 31 October 2011

Okyerebea Ampofo-Anti, a partner at Webber Wentzel, recently had the following article published on The Media Online:

The press landscape in the United Kingdom underwent a radical change with the sudden closure of News of the World in July, due to the now infamous phone hacking scandal. The tabloid’s meteoric fall from grace has left the media industry in the UK reeling and sent shock waves through the international media community. It has become clear that the lasting legacy of the phone-hacking debacle will be the tightening of the UK’s press regulations. These developments are particularly interesting in light of the current debate in South Africa about the appropriate model for regulating the media.

The body charged with enforcing self-regulation in the UK is the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which was established by the print media industry. As with the Press Ombudsman in South Africa, membership is voluntary and members are required to adhere to the Editor’s Code of Practice. The PCC has been criticised for its perceived failure to adequately address unethical behaviour by the press in recent years. The situation came to a head when the News of the World scandal broke, resulting in the resignation of the PCC chairperson and calls for an overhaul of press regulation. Prime Minister David Cameron has since established a formal commission of enquiry chaired by a judge, Lord Justice Leveson. The Leveson Commission is to investigate the “culture, practices and ethics of the press” including the relationship between the press and the public and the system of self-regulation. Cameron explains his decision, citing the fact that the PCC is ineffective and says: “I believe we need a new system entirely. It will be for the inquiry to recommend what the system should look like.

But my starting presumption is that it should be truly independent, independent from the press, so the public will know that newspapers will never again be solely responsible for policing themselves. But vitally, independent of government, so the public will know that politicians are not trying to control or muzzle a press that must be free to hold politicians to account.” His views suggest that, while the UK government remains committed to media freedom, self-regulation by the press in the UK may become a thing of the past.

The current debate and developments in the UK around self-regulation in many ways echoes what has been happening domestically. The ANC last year put the possibility of a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT) on the public agenda. The ANC cited irresponsible and inaccurate reporting as well as an ‘anti-government’ agenda in the mainstream media as justification for the proposal. In an apparent attempt to stave off state regulation, the Press Council undertook a review of the current self-regulation system. This culminated in the establishment of a Press Freedom Commission (the Commission) in July to investigate models of self-regulation.

The developments in the UK illustrate the threat to media freedom that can arise when journalistic ethics are flouted and a public perception arises that the media cannot be trusted. South Africa’s print media should draw from the UK experience to strengthen the domestic self-regulation system. It will be useful for the Commission to consider the information that will be unearthed by the Leveson Commission on what went wrong in the UK and to consider any parallels that may arise. This will assist the Commission to design a local system that ensures the preservation of the media’s integrity.

It is clear from the criticisms levelled at the PCC, and locally at the office of the Press Ombudsman, that self-regulation can only survive if the system enjoys public confidence and is perceived as legitimate and effective. Ultimately, the aim of self- regulation must be to create and maintain a culture of adherence to journalistic ethics and not just to avoid government interference in the media. The legitimate concerns of the general public should be taken on board and the system must provide an affordable and speedy alternative to obtain an effective remedy when journalistic ethics have been breached. A good starting point will be for the Commission to conduct extensive public consultations that are accessible to ordinary people, not just civil society and industry players.

Importantly, there must also be substantial buy-in from the industry. It appears that one of the crucial flaws of the PCC is that some sections of the press in the UK see it as toothless and do not consider adverse rulings by the PCC to be of any consequence. In the domestic context, it is concerning that many journalists are unfamiliar with the requirements of the Press Code and this suggests that there may not be sufficient industry buy-in to the current system. The Commission needs to carefully consider how to improve the levels of awareness and compliance by the press and the type of sanctions regime that should be implemented to enforce compliance. One positive lesson that can be drawn from the current situation in the UK is that, although the current self-regulation system appears to have failed, the government has affirmed its commitment to media freedom by appointing an independent commission of inquiry chaired by a judge rather than imposing a government-led inquiry. The Prime Minister has also stated unequivocally that any new body set up to regulate the media will be independent from the government. This reaffirms that although the power wielded by the media can sometimes be misused, when seeking to calibrate the balance between the interest of the media and the interests of the public, the value of media freedom and its importance in upholding democracy should not be sacrificed.

- The Media Online