The phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid in London made headlines around the globe. Now, Lord Justice Leveson's proposal for an independent media regulator, backed by new laws, has ramifications for freedom of speech and information that also go well beyond Britain's borders. It is a controversial topic in Hong Kong which, like Britain, has a toothless self-regulatory body.
Leveson led a government-appointed inquiry into what he described as outrageous behaviour by the newspaper industry. He proposed a watchdog with power to fine offenders up to £1 million (HK$12.4 million) and order apologies and corrections, backed by new laws for "verification".
The question is how much regulation do you need? Phone hacking, after all, is a crime. The Press Complaints Commission may lack teeth, but the criminal law does not. There is no question that regulators failed miserably, as did internal newspaper managements and the police. Given these failures, it is worth recalling that the scandal was uncovered by journalists from another newspaper exercising unfettered freedom of the press.
British Prime Minister David Cameron backs more effective regulation but is concerned that writing it into the law could infringe on the core democratic values of free speech and a free press. He has a point, though many MPs, including some in his governing coalition, support Leveson's proposal. More regulation opens the door to creeping encroachment on and erosion of freedom of speech. It needs to be improved, but drawing the line between a free media and the right to privacy is difficult. Given the importance of the media's role as a watchdog on abuses of political and other forms of power, there is a need to be careful about taking steps that might inhibit it.
Hong Kong has had its share of media scandals that have led to pressure for the establishment of a statutory press council. Law Reform Commission proposals for a council that could shame and fine the media went nowhere because of concerns about curbing freedom of the press. There is an understandable worry about any form of regulation that could be used to stop the media from doing its job. The media must understand, though, that it is in their own interests to respect other people's rights. The British debate is a reminder of the need for an innovative approach, such as an incentive for media organisations to commit to more effective self-regulation.