Claire Bolderson / Taming the British press

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LONDON

If only we had a First Amendment in the United Kingdom. (Or indeed a written constitution to amend. But that's another story ...) Perhaps then Britain would not be facing the introduction of complicated and possibly unworkable legislation regulating how the press should behave.

British newspapers, particularly the boisterous tabloids, have long been filled with scandal and gossip, some of it bearing only a passing resemblance to truth.

Even the more restrained quality papers have a cheeky irreverence. Poking fun at politicians and celebrities is what British readers have come to expect -- and enjoy.

But the mood changed in 2011 when it emerged that the News of the World, a Sunday tabloid, had been hacking into cell phones and listening to personal voicemail messages.

Nobody was too bothered when the targets were film stars, footballers and politicians. But Britons felt a collective shiver of revulsion when it was revealed that the phone belonging to Milly Dowler, a teenager murdered in a high-profile abduction case, had been hacked into while she was still missing.

The News of the World's proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, apologized and closed down the News of the World.

But that wasn't the end of it.

It turned out that thousands of voicemails had been listened to illegally. Victims ranged from celebrities like Hugh Grant to relatives of people killed in the July 2005 terrorist bombings in the London Underground.

Outraged politicians and public insisted Something Must Be Done. Parliamentary committees held hearings. Political grandstanding turned to farce when Rupert Murdoch had a pie thrown in his face by a protestor, who was in turn belted by Mr. Murdoch's much-younger wife.

But journalists and newspaper executives weren't the only ones under scrutiny. The Metropolitan Police commissioner, Britain's most senior police officer, resigned when it emerged he had accepted hospitality from a former News of the World executive he'd hired as an adviser. Then it turned out that no less than 10 former News of the World staff members were employed by the Met's press office at Scotland Yard.

As the scandal unfolded, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a public inquiry. One of Britain's most senior judges, Lord Leveson, would look into all aspects of the conduct and ethics of the press.

That opened a can of worms Mr. Cameron likely wishes he'd kept firmly closed. He had already accepted the resignation of his own communications chief, Andy Coulson -- a former News of the World editor. Mr. Coulson has since been charged in connection with the hacking scandal.

So has the former chief executive at Murdoch's U.K. papers, Rebekah Brooks. The syrupy text messages she exchanged with Mr. Cameron, a neighbor and long-standing family friend, were a highlight of Lord Leveson's inquiry. When it emerged that Ms. Brooks had been "lent" a retired metropolitan police horse and that the prime minister had ridden that horse, the cozy circle of press, politicians and police was complete.

Lord Leveson's 200,000-word report made numerous recommendations. The most controversial was that an independent body be set up to regulate the press, and that it should be backed up by law.

Pandemonium followed. Furious editors said his lordship was telling Parliament to regulate the British press for the first time in 300 years. David Cameron agreed with them. But his coalition partners the Liberal Democrats and the opposition Labor Party put themselves firmly on the victims' side, accepting all of Lord Leveson's plans.

Now, after months of wrangling, the parties have come up with a lame compromise, agreed over pizza in the Labor leader's office at 2 a.m. There will be a regulatory body set up under Royal Charter (a formal letter from the queen). It's "voluntary," but a big stick hangs over any newspaper that does not sign up to it and abide by its as-yet-unwritten code. If that paper were sued for libel and lost, the courts would be obliged to impose unusually heavy fines. Even if it won, the paper would have to pay the plaintiff's costs.

Not surprisingly, newspapers and magazines reject the new system. (Nobody is quite clear which websites are covered by it). So there is now the very real possibility of a press regulator being established with not a single member of the press agreeing to be bound by its rules.

The worst of it is that Britain already has all the laws it needs to punish the worst abuses. We have the strictest libel laws in the world. Hacking into private telephones is illegal. It is also a crime for a public official to sell information to the press.

Some 90 people have been arrested since 2011 in connection with the newspaper scandals. The majority are journalists or former newspaper staff. But they also include police officers and prison guards accused of exchanging information for cash.

The real question is why action was taken only after the full extent of the phone hacking was revealed (by the Guardian newspaper) in 2011. The police had previously closed down their investigations. Few politicians had shown much interest.

To my mind, there were just too many interested parties scratching each other's backs. Which is why the only new regulations we need are those governing relations between politicians and the police and the press.

The politicians need to watch the police closely. The police need to act on illegal activity by the press.

And the newspapers governed first and foremost by First Amendment-style free speech should keep a very close eye on both.

opinion_commentary

Claire Bolderson, a longtime correspondent and anchor for BBC News, is a freelance journalist based in London (claire.bolderson@gmail.com).


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