In the wake of News of the World and other press scandals, Lord Justice Leveson has called for a new statute-backed system to regulate the British media. To some, such a move would constitute a reversal of a proud free-press tradition dating back to the 17th century. But Minister of Parliament Nadhim Zahawi tells Bob that the UK's self-policing press has been drinking at the "Last Chance Saloon" for too long.
BOB GARFIELD: This Thursday, Britain’s Leveson inquiry released its report on the practices and ethics of the British press. Empaneled in the wake of the News of the World voicemail hacking scandal that had led to criminal charges against a number of top former News Corp executives, the parliamentary commission recommends the creation of an independent regulatory body to quote, “promote high standards of journalism and protect both the public interest and the rights of individuals.” The Report contends that the British press has proven itself incompetent at policing itself. One conservative party politician leading that charge is a member of Parliament, Nadhim Zahawi. Mr. Zahawi, thank you very much for joining us.
NADHIM ZAHAWI: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you have a unique perspective on this question because you grow up in Iraq and you wrote about that as having influenced your thinking.
NADHIM ZAHAWI: That’s exactly right. My instinct was against any form of political interference, because I came to the UK when I was seven years old, my parents fleeing the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein. Their only crime was being Kurdish and not willing to belong to the Baath Party. I knew what a country was like where a dictator was able to control the media. And I do not want our country to go back to the 17th century and license the media. I want them to be free. And so, honestly, I’m not going into this because I think that it’s a better way of governing if we had a docile cooperative media that did what it’s told by politicians.
BOB GARFIELD: Saddam was obviously a brutal dictator, but he ruled by laws passed by a rubberstamp parliament. Isn’t a press law of any kind a tool that just invites political abuse?
NADHIM ZAHAWI: It could if the law requires Parliament to regulate. You need a truly independent regulator, which is what Lord Justice Leveson has recommended in his report, but underpinned in statute. And we have examples of this in the UK, so our judiciary is independent of politicians and government but its provenance is based on statute. The same for the Advertising Standard Authority that regulates advertising in the UK. And so, I think you need that because, obviously, over the past 200 years the media has been drinking in the “Last Chance Saloon” of self-regulation. There’s been so much rule breaking, as Lord Justice Leveson found out. “Milly” Dowler who was a teenager who was murdered. Her phone was hacked. Her parents thought that she was still alive, the McCanns who’s lost their daughter, where the mother’s diary was published without her consent. We’re not talking about the wealthy and the powerful. They can look after themselves through the libel laws and the defamation laws. What we’re talking about her is protection for ordinary people.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, what would a press law do to help the Dowler family and the McCanns that existing criminal statutes about phone hacking, about theft, obstruction of justice aren’t doing right now?
NADHIM ZAHAWI: Well, two things, an arbitration process that is swift and affordable for ordinary people. There was another case, by the way, Chris Jefferies, accused wrongly of murdering a tenant in his home, he was mauled by the press before anyone stopped to think, actually, maybe he’s not the culprit. So you need an arbitration process so that we can get these things resolved very quickly with the right reprimand, whether financial or an apology on the front page, as prominent as the initial story. And the other thing that you need is what we term the “Richard Desmond problem.” One of the proprietors in the UK, Mr. Desmond, refused to sign up to the self-regulator, and there was no reprimand. Now, what Leveson is recommending is if they do sign up to the new independent regulator, then the courts can take that into consideration, if they are then found to have done something wrong.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that once you have the government statute underpinning any kind of regulatory apparatus that there will be a chilling effect on reporting that you get from an independent press. How to make sure that you're not throwing out the baby of press freedom with the bathwater?
NADHIM ZAHAWI: One of the things that the new independent regulator will need to do, is make sure that there is a standard for public interest. Now, the broadcasters are already regulated, whether it’s the BBC with its board or ITV with Ofcom. Let’s not forget, ITV broke one of the most important stories in the UK. Jimmy Savile who was a big star in the UK in the seventies and eighties turned out, after his death, to be a pedophile. ITV broke that story, although they are regulated.
One of the things we looked at is you could have a standard for public interest, which allows newspapers, like The Telegraph, to break the law and to pay for the CD that had the MP’s expenses on it because they were exposing wrongdoing by politicians. And for that same reason, I’d be happy for any press outlet to have hacked Jimmy Savile, if they had the evidence that he was a pedophile. If you have a clear standard for public interest, you will create a media that is more aggressive and investigative. The way you do it is not by effectively allowing them to mark their own homework, as Leveson put it. You need to have a truly independent regulator, independent of politicians and independent of the media themselves.
BOB GARFIELD: The Internet has become a major source of news and almost news. In time, it may be the only channel. So is this whole argument moot?
NADHIM ZAHAWI: One of the ideas that we looked at was some sort of a voluntary kite mark that could be part of the new independent regulator. If bloggers and news sites are able to demonstrate to the regulator that they want to be part of this, then the reader of those blogs can see that that blog does follow the regulator’s guidelines on good journalism. There isn’t a good answer to how you do this. This is probably the most compelling argument anyone can make against Lord Leveson’s proposals, but you need, I think, to at least have a go.
BOB GARFIELD: Mr. Zahawi, thank you very much.
NADHIM ZAHAWI: Thank you, sir.
BOB GARFIELD: Nadhim Zahawi is a member of Parliament, representing Stratford-on-Avon.