Celebrity Coverage, Media Regulation in European Spotlight

Justice Brian Leveson - P 2012
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The final Leveson Inquiry recommendations will be presented in the U.K. Thursday following recent debates in various countries.

LONDON - The media’s relationship with celebrities and regulation of the media industry will be in the spotlight in Europe later this week.

In the U.K., judge Brian Leveson will on Thursday publish his long-awaited final Leveson Inquiry report into media standards, culture and ethics, including likely recommendations for stricter regulation of newspapers. The British government ordered his inquiry following the News Corp. phone hacking scandal last summer, and celebrities - from Hugh Grant and J.K. Rowling to Charlotte Church - have spoken out in favor of measures to curb press excesses.

Whatever happens, the final Leveson report and the consequences politicians and law enforcers draw from it will affect how Hollywood and other celebrities handle themselves in the future. And it is likely to cause debate in other European countries.

Meanwhile, Italy, a European hotbed of litigation, will on the same day see journalists go on strike to protest against a proposed law that would require a jail sentence for writers convicted of defamation, while editors would get off with a fine. The maximum jail sentence would be a year, compared with a maximum fine of $64,400 (50,000 euros). Media industry observers expect the debate and its impact to be mostly locally focused on Italy, but observers say it will still put another spotlight on the power and role of the media.

The Thursday events in the two countries, however, come after recent debates in other European countries about the role of the media, celebrity journalism and what some have criticized as an assault on press freedom.

The U.K. recently even saw media criticism extend to TV news following the resignation of BBC director general George Entwistle after a mistaken report on flagship news show Newsnight. But the criticism came not so much as part of a call for more regulation, but one against it.

"There has been a sub-text to this criticism of TV," said Richard Sambrook, director of the Center for Journalism at Cardiff University. "With the Leveson press report due out, newspaper publishers have been worried about new regulation. That's why they have attacked the BBC so hard. They wanted to say 'see, they are strongly regulated, but can still screw up'," he said.

Much of the media chatter and celebrity concern that has galvanized critics and defenders of the press alike across Europe was the recent publication of semi-nude photos of Kate Middleton in magazines in France, Italy, Sweden and Denmark, as well as an Irish newspaper, whose editor just resigned.

A French court earlier this fall used existing powers when it banned Closer, the first magazine to print the topless photos, from further distribution of the images. It also forced the magazine to relinquish all digital copies of the photos under threat of a fine. Police even raided the Closer offices to look for leads to the photographer in a move that drew some local criticism.

Meanwhile, in Russia, there have also been reports that new restrictions on the media could be initiated by Alexei Mitrofanov, the newly appointed as head of the media committee at the State Duma, the lower chamber of Russian parliament. No formal plans have been announced so far though.

It is this continuing debate about the extent of media regulation and curbs to press freedom in and around Europe that makes it likely that the Leveson report and its impact on media rules will get attention beyond U.K. borders.

Plus, the power of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and the phone hacking scandal has been followed in many European countries. The report is the result of more than a year of evidence from the likes of Grant, Rowling, Murdoch, his son and News Corp. deputy COO James Murdoch and the former CEO of their U.K. newspaper unit, Rebekah Brooks.

The final Leveson recommendations, which are expected to include a call for stricter regulations that the Conservative Party-led government of Prime Minister David Cameron will have to discuss. Its coalition partner and the opposition Labour Party seem ready to support statutory regulation, meaning supervision of the press by a government-created body. And even some of Cameron's party members have suggested stricter rules.

But statutory controls would send an "appalling message" abroad and encourage some of the toughest regimes in the world to continue with anti-free press policies, the World Press Freedom Committee, which campaigns against limitations on the media, said in a letter to Britain's foreign secretary William Hague published in U.K. papers over the weekend.

A "chill will go through the world's media - matched by a warm glow in the ministries of some of the most illiberal regimes," it said.

While proponents of stricter rules said this criticism was overstated, big newspaper groups gave also opposed statutory regulation in favor of improved self-regulation.

“A varied press guarantees democracy," News Corp.'s Murdoch said during his Leveson testimony earlier this year.

And David Hunt, the chairman of Britain's Press Complaints Commission, a self-regulation body of newspaper publishers that is being disbanded as inefficient in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, has urged the U.K. government to avoid full-on regulation of the media. "Because of criminal activities on the part of one national publisher, everyone, including the local and regional press, is threatened with statutory regulation," he said.

Sambrook expects Leveson to ring alarm bells, but the final outcome to be less severe for publishers. "Leveson is likely to recommend some form of statutory regulation - the government is unlikely to push it through," he said. "The newspapers may get yet another round in the "last chance saloon," although most of the public are against it."

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai