Returning last Friday, 07 November from a family wedding in Canada, I grabbed The Independent and read that News Corp had set up an 'Alert-line' for staff to whistleblow on suspicious colleagues. News Corp's Chief Compliance and Ethics Officer, Eugenia C Gavenchak stressed that all employees are under an obligation to report any of their workmates that they suspect of violating a presumably beefed up ethics code, following on from the recent phone-hacking scandal which led to the closure of the News of the World paper.
The new policy even goes so far as to assure that those whose accusations are later proven to be false, will have the support of the company, provided he or she acted in good faith. Nothing quite like, it would seem, the ardour of the converted!
Also in The Independent, is what amounts to a critique by James Cusick of Lord Leveson's ongoing inquiry into issues of media regulation. Appointed by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, on 13 July 2011 and part of the fallout after the Milly Dowler revelations, Mr Cusick described Lord Leveson's Thursday, 06 November 'seminar' in the QE2 Conference Centre, as a "...forum trying to promote the myth that unethical or illegal activity never happened in Britain's squeaky-clean media."
The seminar had been apparently billed as an examination of "the competitive pressures on the press and the impact on journalism." This could be a long inquiry! Such an issue for study would have been understood by the proto-journalist pamphleteers of the Pont Neuf in 17th-century Paris or their contemporaries distributing the last confessions of the condemned at Tyburn's Triple Tree.
Mr Cusick noted that the former Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiatt condemned the tabloid press newsdesks as "evil and twisted" and quoted Mr Peppiatt saying that they were run on the basis of: "Tell us what we want to hear and we won't ask how you got it."
However, other senior figures present from a number of UK titles did not ostensibly identify with this image of their industry and Mr Cusick concluded, with more than a hint of criticism, that: "The seminar had just descended into back-packing."
What then is the aim of this (second) inquiry made at the behest of the Prime Minister into "the culture, practices and ethics of the Press". Has it been triggered by the failure of the, now somewhat tarnished and possibly soon to be replaced, Press Complaints Commission? Might the Inquiry spawn legislation, possibly in the form of a privacy law? Or could it be merely a bit of window-dressing to show that our leaders care and are doing something about it with a Press on its best behaviour for now, before slowly slipping back into old ways?
There was, of course, widespread criticism of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and its lack of response and action to the phone-hacking scandal. Yet, in fairness, it must be borne in mind that the PCC is a voluntary body, its Code of Practice precisely that, set up in such a manner by members of the Press itself, in order to avoid legal and external regulation and it had no way of knowing, as the scandal broke, just how much more, possibly with other titles involved, was going to be revealed.
Further, it's agreed by many that the phone-hacking story had all but run its course until, on Monday 04 July 2011, The Guardian's reporters Nick Davies and Amelia Hill ran the headline: "Missing Milly Dowler's voicemail was hacked by News of the World".
The phone-hacking of celebrities and politicians had been fair game up to this point, or at least no serious action was visibly threatened against the News of the World, but, not for the first time, that paper never quite knew where to draw the line and this time British tolerance was tested too far and public opinion turned against the country's biggest selling paper with a vengeance. This, probably more than anything legal, broke the News of the World and led to its closure.
It's quite possible that Lord Justice Leveson's remit allows a fairly broad brush approach in the settlement of matters affecting what is deemed to be in the public interest as opposed to what the public is interested in. A stricter, more rigidly enforced Code of Practice is likely to have greater attraction than a "Privacy" law or anything in a more legal framework, for the Law itself is not always too clear precisely where the fault lines lie.
One case which illustrates the problem is that of Max Mosley. Mr Mosley, a controversial figure, is the son of British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford who were married at a ceremony in Germany attended by Hitler and Goebbels. In March 2008, he was secretly videod for the News of the World, taking part in sex acts with five prostitutes, by one of the ladies involved. Adding bite to the story, the paper claimed that there had been Nazi role-playing during the session though this was proved to be a complete fabrication and in July 2008, Mr Mosley successfully sued the paper.
The judge, Mr Justice Eady ruled:
"... I see no genuine basis at all for the suggestion that the participants mocked the victims of the Holocaust....there was no justification for the clandestine recording, for the publication of the resulting information and still photographs, or the placing of the video extracts on the News of the World website - all of this on a massive scale."
Mr Mosley had asked for punitive damages to be awarded but Mr Justice Eady awarded him compensatory damages of £60,000 and costs - £450,000
Therefore there appears to be a public interest allowance given Mr Mosley's background but the paper simply went too far, with the Nazi element being a fanciful invention.
Since then Mr Mosley has tried to have British Privacy laws changed. Unsuccessfully though, for on 27 September 2011, Mr Mosley lost his (final) appeal before a five-judge panel of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights to force such a change.
A little confusing where the rights and wrongs of a matter lie?
Lord Justice Leveson's task is anything but straightforward!