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Leveson In The Tristes Tropiques?


One dreadful curse of contemporary life is the terrifying flood of words with which the agencies of mass communication threaten to inundate the citizen. Anybody with nothing to say can say it by mass communication if he has a knowingpress agent, or a considerable reputation, or an active pressure group behind him, whereas, even with such advantages, anybody with something to say has a hard time getting it said by mass communication if it runs counter to the ideas of owners, editors, opposing pressure groups, or popular prejudice. –Hutchins Commission

Venício A. de Lima of Brazil’s Observatório da Imprensa writes recently on the relevance of the Leveson Inquiry to the media zaibatsu of the South Atlantic coastal rain forest.

The Leveson Inquiry of 2012 — and not just its final report — might well  become a standard reference for news organizations in liberal democracies similar to that wielded by the Hutchins Commission (1942-1947) in the 1940s.

Preserving classical liberal ideals — or rather, fighting to protect them — while failng to confront such disagreeable  topics as interlocking directorates, both inquiries sought to safeguard a fundamental principle, based  on their diagnosis of how the media industry functions: That the media’s principal role remains that of forming public opinion through the free exchange of ideas in the marketplace. 

United States v. England

In the U.S., 60 years ago, however, it had already become impossible to sustain the myth of a “free market in ideas” which parallels the “free market in goods and services.”

Private companies that monopolized the means of production comprised  an oligopoly strong enough to prevent the citizen-reader-listener-spectator from receiving all the information required for informed public debate. .

The Hutchins Proposal – drawn up by a commission of 13 business owners and professors — was essentially to embed the free circulaton of ideas into the media companies themselves,  formulating rules on the use of ethical principles such as objectivity to serve as a code of professional conduct under a theory of “the social responsibility of the press.”

See also my [Vinício A. de Lima]  «The Hutchins Commission – The Old New Paradigm at 61».

In contemporary Great Britain, after 16 months of investigation by a federal [sic] judge who took testimony from absolutely everyone — from the primer minister to the media barons — it was shown that private media oligopolies were committing criminal acts under the umbrella of a false appeal to freedom of the press, with the cumplicity of police and the direct or indirect involvement of some of the most powerful figures in the realm.

And there’s more.

It was proven conclusively that the auto-regulation agency, the Press Complaints Commission, established by members of the industry, had been incapable of combating journalistic malpractice, functioning mainly  as a lobby for the industry itself.

The Leveson recommendation, therefore, is to create an opt-in regulator that is independent of both the industry and the state, placed on a sound legal footing and financed by the industry itself.

In other words, and despite Leveson’s insistence on calling it a «self-regulatory» body, the aim is to create an autonomous public agency, immune to regulation.

The fact that the Leveson inquiry and its recommendations have their origins in England, birthplace of modern liberal expression and speech rights, and where there already exists a regulatory body — OFCOM — adds an additional note of drama.


A Clearer Undestanding

After the Leveson Report, will Brazilian media owners still be able to defend the argument that any and all regulation of the media  — including the relevant provisions of the 1988 Constitution — is an attack on freedom of expression or a form of censorship?

Will the Leveson Inquiry be enough to convince Brazil’s  private oligopolies that their businesses need to be regulated in the name of the public interest?

One of the arguments floated by those who oppose democratic media regulation is that Brazil is supposedly not “culturally prepared” for measures such as those being taken in England. We are said to lack a democratic political culture, and that we tend toward the authoritarian.

I find this odd.

in 1810, Hipólito da Costa, a resident of London, and therefore free of Luso-Brazilian censorship, translated and published in, in the pages of his own Correio Braziliense, the most important defense of free expression and the free press ever — Areopagitica, by John Milton,written in 1644.

A few years later, in 1821, the Bahian José da Silva Lisboa  — later the Viscount of Cairu and one of Brazil’s most prominent liberals — in his The Conciliator of the United Kingdom, based on the ideas of Friedrich von Gentz, defended censorship and listed the damages that “freedom of the press is causing everywhere in the free world.

Since that time, and taking into account how much more advanced the English were, Brazilian elites were hotly debating opposing views on freedom of expression and the press. The elite was well aware of and debated these issues.

More than 200 years later, in the 21st century, can we really still use the argument of cultural bacwardness? Or is this an instance of that all too familiary argument of cultural elites who disqualify the rest of us in defense of their own private rights? Who are the authoritarian elements in Brazilian politics?

The Leveson Inquiry does in fact help us to understand more keenly — on a comparative basis — what has been happening in Brazil What has been happening for a long time now, in fact.

In any event, Venício suggests an entertaining, ongoing hobby of sorts: studying examples of ethical dilemmas in the native press and asked,

“What would Levenson do?” What should the Brazilian press do, for example, with sources like the central figure in Operation Motorman, who brokered confidential information between a corrupt cop and a tabloid.

One difficulty encountered by British authorities in Operation Reproof, for example, was the complexity of the networks used by the lawbreakers:

In particular, the police found that a small number of police officers who had retired from the Devon and Cornwall Police had set themselves up as private investigators forthe commercial market and were obtaining information from former colleagues who werestill working within the police service or other agencies, such as the Department for Work and Pensions. The information was then passed through a network of individuals before it reached the ultimate customer. In most cases that ultimate customer was three or four links up the chain.

What is the antipodean equivalent of the scheme uncovered in Operation Motorman, a factoid factory for a large number of British tabloids?

Data on so-called Core Participants in the scheme was kept confidential except among key commission staff, but there is a number of journalists who used the scheme: 333. Up to £547,160 was paid.