Will Leveson change the British media? Unlikely. But something can be done.

This year’s Reuters Memorial Lecture in Oxford earlier this week focused on the astonishing invasions of privacy by the UK media being revealed to the Leveson inquiry. A panel of leading academics and media people provided interesting and varied insights into the conflict between privacy and freedom of the press. ‘Something must change’ was the consensus, and in the direction of more control.

I doubt whether all that much will change in the long run, nor should it. Britain has laws protecting both privacy and free speech. The tension between the two has existed ever since people gathered round the village pump and chatted.

Hacking into telephones of victims of crime does seem outrageous. At the same time, a glance at popular media web sites shows some celebrities pretending to be enjoying private moments clearly pose for paparazzi to attract attention, adding sexual titillation to make it captivating. Likewise, media headlines every day reveal attempts by governments and corporations to manipulate and cover up. So we may regret more controls.

Can anything be done? Baroness Onora O’Neill, the lecturer, suggested journalists should have to reveal publicly the extent to which they use covert methods to collect information. No betraying of sources, just a cataloguing of their practices. I am not sure what benefits this would have brought when I was a foreign correspondent behind the Iron Curtain in the Cold War. But generally transparency is welcome.

I suggest mobile telephone companies should also be regulated to force them to make their phones more secure. In the digital age, this is unlikely to be absolute. But banks have generally been able to keep ahead of the criminals in e-banking, so why not mobile phone makers?

Lastly, people having a tough time with journalists could make more use of professional media coaching. This is not foolproof, but can allay fears and restore confidence. For people with few resources, perhaps the state could even provide this for free, in the same way as it offers psychological counselling to victims of crimes of violence.

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