Hacking scandal should not give excuse to curb press freedom

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 June, 2014, 5:11am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 June, 2014, 12:05pm

Under pressure to adapt to the rise of social media and the internet, the press cannot afford to lose public trust. Nothing was calculated to strain it to breaking point like the exposure of phone hacking by British newspapers. They did not just eavesdrop on the messages of the high and mighty like politicians and celebrities, but also on the voicemails of tragic individuals, like victims of crime and terrorism. Public revulsion prompted media mogul Rupert Murdoch to order the unceremonious closure of the 168-year-old News of the World tabloid.

The revelations had a sequel in a London court on Tuesday. A jury convicted former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who later became press adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron, of conspiracy to intercept voicemail messages. But it acquitted five others including Coulson's ex-lover, former tabloid editor and former head of Murdoch's British newspaper empire Rebekah Brooks, who denied knowing about the hacking. Some would find that hard to accept. In another place Lord Justice Brian Leveson described a similar denial by former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan as "utterly unpersuasive".

Leveson led a government-appointed inquiry into what he described as outrageous behaviour by the newspaper industry. He proposed statutory regulation, which raised concerns about press freedom. Sensibly, politicians struck a deal for self-regulation presided over by an independent official with power to impose fines of up to £1 million (HK$13.2 million) and order apologies and corrections.

Phone hacking, after all, is a crime, and the Old Bailey trial is a reminder that the law is a deterrent and no one is above it. Writing media regulation into law could impinge on the core democratic values of free speech and a free press. In this respect it is worth remembering it was the unfettered inquiries by another newspaper that uncovered the phone hacking scandal. Compliance with the law and rules against misconduct under effective self-regulation is the best way to restore confidence.