What you need to know about the just-published Leveson report on phone hacking, press regulation

The report of Lord Justice Brian Leveson‘s 16-month-long inquiry into “the culture, practices and ethics” of the British press was released Thursday. Here’s the report and the summary.

The report proposes “independent regulation of the press organized by the press itself,” Leveson said while introducing the report this morning.

In the report, Leveson recommends “An independent self regulatory body…governed by an independent Board.” The board would “not include any serving editor” and “not include any serving member of the House of Commons or any member of the Government,” the report says. The board must write a standards code and “require all those who subscribe to have an adequate and speedy complaint handling mechanism.” The board “should not have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone, at any time” and “should have the power to impose appropriate and proportionate sanctions, (including financial sanctions up to 1% of turnover with a maximum of £1m), on any subscriber found to be responsible for serious or systemic breaches of the standards code or governance requirements of the body.”

Here’s what else you need to know about it:

• The inquiry followed revelations that journalists at the News of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., had hacked into the voicemail of murdered British schoolgirl Milly Dowler and may have deleted voicemail messages. That followed years of less ghoulish scandals involving phone-hacking. The resulting megascandal touched British Prime Minister David Cameron, who employed former News of the World Editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief. Coulson resigned in 2011; he and fellow News of the World Editor Rebekah Brooks have been charged with various crimes, including bribery, in the course of three concurrent police investigations into phone-hacking. (Coincidentally, Coulson and Brooks appeared in court Thursday.)

Rebekah Brooks, former News International chief executive leaves Westminster Magistrates Court in London, where she appeared to face charges linked to alleged bribery of public officials,Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

• Rupert Murdoch ordered the News of the World closed in July 2011. His son James Murdoch stepped down as the head of News International, the News Corp. division that publishes the company’s British papers, in February of this year. Rupert and James Murdoch gave some of the most anticipated testimony at the Leveson Inquiry. A parliamentary report separate from the Leveson Inquiry (I know, I know) called Murdoch “not fit to run an international company like BSkyB” — the British satellite TV provider he partly owns, which also reportedly partook in phone-hacking.

• In June, News Corp. announced it would split its newspaper-publishing businesses from its media and entertainment businesses.

• The Leveson Inquiry is expected to recommend how the British press should be regulated. Its previous regulatory body, funded by newspapers, badly botched a complaint about initial reports that the News of the World had engaged in phone-hacking, finding they “did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given.” As of June, the inquiry had cost £3.9 million ($6.2 million). Eighty British lawmakers have opposed statutory regulation of the press, saying it would not “be possible without the imposition of state licensing — abolished in Britain in 1695. State licensing is inimical to any idea of press freedom and would radically alter the balance of our unwritten constitution” in an open letter.

• Item 6 of Dan Sabbagh’s fab Guardian explainer lists the various regulatory schemes Leveson may recommend. Newsgathering on the Internet, the explainer notes, was not in the scope of Leveson’s inquiry, so, Sabbagh writes, “fresh debate will begin about how far regulation is practical in the Internet age” after the report is digested. “To put ‘the Internet’ within the scope of Leveson would be as daft as it would be futile,” Emily Bell writes, “and to regulate the press further, without having a broader definition of who ‘the press’ might be, is a recipe for irrelevance.”

• Parliament is scheduled to take up the Leveson recommendations Dec. 3. The Metropolitan Police Service (Scotland Yard) was been warned by Leveson that it would face criticism for, among other things, coziness with certain media organizations.

• Cameron got an early copy of the report Wednesday. You can download the report for free or purchase a copy for £250 (about 400 bucks). This blogger, speaking on his own behalf and not that of The Poynter Institute, suggests that any regulatory body that springs from this endeavor take up as its first order of business the public humiliation of any news organization that elected to buy the report.

• While there will be intense media interest in the story Thursday, “I just don’t think people believe that something really valuable is at stake,” Simon Kelner writes of the British public.

That’s because much of the population is relatively content with the way things are. After all, they bought the News of the World in huge numbers (not bothering how stories and pictures found their way into the paper); they believe there are extant laws to punish those who indulge criminal behaviour (and the sight of former newspaper executives in the dock is evidence of this); and people know that the Internet is now where most of the bullying, intimidation and scurrilous gossip is to be found.

In the grand tradition of British journalism, and in perhaps a preview of what any regulatory body that springs from this endeavor may face, Kelner declines to give much in the way of specifics, citing only a “poll of 1,000 people” that found Leveson wasn’t a burning issue for punters.

Dominic Lawson quoted Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge approvingly in a column this week: “An independent press will, from time to time, behave appallingly or employ individuals who in order to pursue a story will commit criminal offences,” Judge said last year. “We do not say that the General Medical Council and self-regulation have failed when, as sometimes happens, a doctor sexually molests one or more of his patients, or like Dr Shipman murders them.”

• There are a number of good primers on the whole sad story and what Thursday’s report will mean (1, 2), but if you have time for a long read, I suggest Steve Fishman’s profile of Daily News Editor Colin Myler — who edited the News of the World until it closed last year — from this past April.

• If you’re not following Rupert Murdoch on Twitter, start now. Other good follows: Tom Watson, Media Guardian.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Hamer/1654932749 John Hamer

    This is why the United States needs more news councils, made up of journalists AND members of the public. The Washington News Council (http://wanewscouncil.org) is now the only one left in this country, since Minnesota’s closed its doors last year. The National News Council lasted more than a dozen years, but finally folded in 1984. News councils, done right, are part of the solution. More American journalists should embrace the concept. Disagree? Why? Be specific.