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Public Editor: There are lessons for Canada in Leveson's report on British media

Lord Justice Brian Leveson unveils his report following an inquiry into media practices.

POOL/Reuters

You've probably read stories on Lord Brian Leveson's report on the British media and his calls for a new press law.

His report was massive and thorough and not surprisingly focussed on what must be one of the worst example of journalism ethics seen anywhere. The News of the World, when it was operating, ignored not only any principles, but behaved as if it was above the law.

The newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch, hacked cellphones of the famous and not famous (such as murdered school girl Milly Dowler) to try to get as much dirt as they could on anyone. Relations were cozy with police and politicians, and perhaps  that's why it went on so long, as Lord Leveson suggests.

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Not only was it appalling, but Lord Leveson suggests that culture is not dead even though the News of the World is. If you look at this great speed read graphic from the Guardian and click on victims, you can read about the ongoing issues, in Lord Leveson's opinion.

Much of what went wrong might have been remedied sooner by the police and Lord Leveson notes that the police investigation has already lead to 90 arrests.

On this side of the Atlantic, we can see many differences and a few similarities. Our libel laws are different, our national culture is different, relationships between politicians and the media and the police and media are different and the history of newspaper wars is different.

Unlike the UK, Canadian papers were built on a foundation of home subscriptions, developing a relationship with the reader rather than the cut throat-battle of daily street sales where often the front page headline or photo would drive the day's sales. Most Canadian newspapers are rooted and actively involved in their communities.

While competition is fierce at times, even more so now with so many readers online, there is no culture of phone hacking or illegal actions to get ahead here. Recently the Supreme Court of Canada underscored the main difference with its ruling on responsible journalism. That ruling gave newspapers and newssites greater protection in libel cases in stories that were in the public interest. Not just interesting to the public -- as in the lives of the rich and famous like actors Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller -- but in the public's interest. Canada also has press councils which act as independent voices for the reading public. The Globe and Mail is a member of the Ontario Press Council and must publish any rulings related to a hearing of complaint against it. The council is made up of a majority of public members and a newspaper representative cannot sit in judgment on its own paper. Its chairman, Dr. Robert Elgie, is a former Ontario cabinet minister, a lawyer and a doctor.

Still, we in this country can't afford to be dismissive of Lord Leveson's observations and conclusions. He raises a number of issues which Canadian media should take some time to thoughtfully consider. He writes about the balance between rights and responsibilities for journalists. He is clearly a fan of newspapers and notes the great investigative work done in Britain such as uncovering the dangers of thalidomide. "The press, operating properly, is one of the true safeguards of our democracy," he wrote.  "The press is given significant and special rights in this country, which I recognise … With these rights, however, come responsibilities to the public interest: to respect the truth, to obey the law and to uphold the rights and liberties of individuals."

While he says the News of the World had a  "general lack of respect for individual privacy and dignity" and was clearly an extreme case, I think all media should look at whether we do a good enough job in respecting the individual.

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Lord Leveson also notes that in Britain, there is "a cultural tendency, within parts of the press to vigorously resist or dismiss complainants almost as a matter of course."

While I believe this newspaper and its website do a good job of correcting errors and noting corrections, this paper and other papers and websites could do a better job in learning from errors and not repeating those trends.

I would be interested in reading your thoughts on press rights and responsibilities. You can comment below or send me an email at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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