Britain’s press inquiry is a deathbed confession, not a solution

After months of hearings and endless testimony, Britain’s Leveson inquiry into the ethics and behavior of the press dumped its thoughts out into public for the first time this week. Originally sparked by the revelations of phone hacking at News Corp’s British print outlets (s NWS), it ended up a broad and outsized affair with nearly 2,000 pages of text in just this first installment alone, stuffed with evidence, detail and recommendations on how to make the press better.

And yet, for all that text, there was very little heft. It detailed problems and offered a few solutions — but at no point did the inquiry really attempt to tackle the deep questions.

Sure, the report recommends replacing the UK’s current system of self-regulation for print media with a new, officially-sanctioned body that’s intended to guarantee freedom of the press while also holding outlets accountable for decisions. Beyond that, however, it feels like there was little to no understanding displayed of how the publishing world is changing — and how that is disrupting the news business it was supposed to investigate.

And this position isn’t just ignorance, either.

It seems to be deliberate.

Robert Andrews had a great blow-by-blow on how inquiry chair Lord Justice Leveson had specifically avoided many of the most important questions that news organizations are trying to address right now.

The world of online publishing, surely the future of almost all the organizations he was looking at, was dismissed with a careless wave. Questions that need answering were ignored: Where do the lines blur between news and not-news? What is the role of social networking? How is information being liberated from its traditional forms? What constitutes an act of journalism? These are topics that pre-occupy many forward thinkers in the media and yet none of these seem to have been dealt with because of the misguided opinion that “most blogs are rarely read as news or factual, but as opinion and must be considered as such”.

In fact, we all know information flows in ways that go way beyond the capability of traditional news-gathering organizations. Newspapers are weak, dying or dead — and those that are not are turning into something very different.

They have been broken by changes in supply and demand, turned upside down by the free availability of information, and knocked sideways by the internet’s ability to crush borders and barriers. And yet here, a huge public inquiry focused on wrongdoing ended up focused one tiny sliver of a much broader industry.

Leveson should have thought hard about the way that change has happened, because it is important to help the press be better in the future. Instead, he abdicated responsibility and focused on problems that already have solutions.

Rupert Murdoch with The Sun On SundayAfter all, there are many other ways to right the wrongs of phone hacking and invasions of privacy — and I’m not even talking about leaving it to the market to decide. The market’s role as a righter of wrongs is largely mythical: after all, if the market was able to reflect the moral outrage of phone hacking l, it took Rupert Murdoch just a few months between Rupert Murdoch’s decision to kill The News of the World and the launch of a Sunday edition of The Sun, which has already become Britain’s most popular weekend outlet. The market is not a perfect machine: it can be perverted.

No, I mean that there is plenty of legal recourse available. Breaking into people’s voicemail is criminal activity: it can be punished as such (and it is). Wrongly inferring that public figures are pedophiles is something the courts can deal with (and they are).

Instead we got a report that apparently made no effort to understand the deep corruption at the heart of many media organizations, or the pressures on them that encourage unethical behavior. We got a report that seems to believe that trying to control “the press” is the same as trying to control information. We got a depressing, obscurantist read focused on the worst excesses of a dying industry — not something that tried to understand the interplay between different forms of communication.

Agreeing to the new regulatory proposals is the equivalent of a deathbed confession over a crime committed long, long ago. It’s a way to expunge a feeling of guilt by someone who is on the edge of oblivions: it doesn’t make up for the original infraction and it doesn’t make tomorrow any better.

We all crave a better understanding of how those issues play out, because those are the guidelines that help regulate the future. But in the end, the world doesn’t need Leveson, because the world has already moved on.