Written by: 
By Dorah Nampindi, Emma Namwanje and Immaculate Ga

An intense scandal that happened in the United Kingdom, 9,867 km from Uganda, sent waves across the journalism world with effects that are to be far reaching. The News International phone-hacking scandal was one involving News of the World and other British newspapers published by News International, a subsidiary of News Corporation. In 2011, it was found that one or more employees of these newspapers hacked into Milly Dowler’s phone (a murdered teenager) to get a story to run. This raised a public outcry against such an activity by the press. The 13 year old girl disappeared from home for days and the family continually called her phone, leaving voice messages for her to get in touch with them. This was done a number of times that the voicemail storage was full and could not take any more messages. Unknown to anyone else, the press hacked into her voicemail, listened to, and deleted the messages; when the family tried to call their daughter again, they found that though the phone call was not picked up, there was space for voice messages! This could only mean that their daughter had indeed retrieved the messages left for her and gave the family a lot of hope. This hope was going to be found as false because Milly was dead. The press activity came to light causing such revulsion because this was wrong on many fronts; listening in on private conversations, leading the family to false hope, plain bad journalism. Questions arose as to who else was being hacked- this bought an answer; celebrities, politicians, the British soldiers and victims of the 7/7 London bombings. The situation led to advertiser boycott contributing to the closure of the News of the World on 10 July, after 168 years in business. The closure of this one media house was not going to suffice. More needed to be done and this by the powers in the land to ensure the citizens are protected. The press needed to be corrected with more than a slap on the wrist. This was not the first time press ethics were compromised for a story (one of the other times being the death of Diana, princess of Wales). Comprehensive reforms had been introduced whose impact was felt but not to great effect.
Ethics and Media Responsibility
With the media being the fourth arm of government or fourth estate, as it has been called by many, it is a grave disappointment that such scandals are seen to be the case. The tale of the phone hacking scandal goes against all ethics and media responsibility- the protector became the one from whom one needed protection. The press have been given such power to inform and act as watch dog but what some of them do not seem to grasp is that with power comes responsibility. One wonders if they are responsible enough. How far do they need to go to do their job? Is there any conscience applied or critical thinking when they are doing what they have to do? Is it only the story they care about or the people they are writing about as well? These and more questions arise when one hears about something as appalling as the phone hacking scandal. Unfortunately, this is not a case to be found only in the UK; press disregard of ethics and responsibility can be seen across the globe with many doing anything to get the story. Seeing that some entities will not use their human sense in doing the job, or, worse still, their human sense is so corroded that they have none anymore, the media then need to be helped and held accountable in terms of ethics and media responsibility.
Leveson Report
Finding that something had to be done about the press, a yearlong UK-wide inquiry was set up on 13th July 2011 with the support of the Devolved Governments of the UK in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales (this was not the first of its kind seeing that this had been done before). It was to bring to light what had been happening as well as to present recommendations to address the issues. The inquiry was into the culture, practices and ethics of the press and it produced the Leveson report. The report was called that because The Right Honourable Lord Justice Leveson, on appointment by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, led the team undertaking the mission. It was a seven man inquiry team, including the judge and six assessors, which produced the findings and recommendations; over 600 witnesses were heard, half of them being physically present and the other half documented or recorded. The Prime Minister, while addressing the House of Commons noted that “In recent days, the whole country has been shocked by the revelations of the phone hacking scandal. What this country—and the House—has to confront is an episode that is, frankly, disgraceful: accusations of widespread lawbreaking by parts of our press… “The Inquiry covered the newspapers whether printed or online, excluding broadcasters which are already regulated by Ofcom, a regulatory body in the UK.
With the considerations of the time frame given, the cost of the mission, the full engagement of the industry in the process and the meeting of all interests of the public, the inquiry was done. For openness, the hearings that informed this report were televised and the footage used both on television and online reporting. A four volume, detailed report was released that engaged many in a discussion of its significance.
Press-Police-Politician Relations
In addition to the above mentioned scandal, press-police-politician relations were another key issue that led to the Leveson inquiry. David Cameron said, about the reason for this inquiry “… alleged corruption by some police officers; and, as we have just discussed, the failure of our political system over many, many years to tackle a problem that has been getting worse. We must at all times keep the real victims at the front and centre of this debate. Relatives of those who died at the hands of terrorism, war heroes and murder victims—people who have already suffered in a way that we can barely imagine—have been made to suffer all over again. I believe that we all want the same thing: press, police and politicians who serve the public. Last night the Deputy Prime Minister and I met the Leader of the Opposition. I also met the Chairs of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the Home Affairs Committee and the Justice Committee to discuss the best way forward. Following these consultations, I want to set out today how we intend to proceed: first, on the public inquiry; secondly, on the issues surrounding News International’s proposed takeover of BSkyB; and thirdly, on ethics in the police service and its relationship with the press.”
According to the report, allegations that the press and police had become rampant with ‘payment of money or the provision of other favours for inside information, prior notice of newsworthy incidents or participation in high profile operations (including presence at arrests). It also covers the cross fertilisation of employment with retired senior police officers being engaged as newspaper columnists and journalists being employed in PR departments or as PR advisers by police services (the report) also deals with the relationship between the press and politicians including, in particular, the perception that, in return for political support, politicians have been too ready to allow undue influence to be exercised in relation to policy and that, in any event, the relationship between the two has not been transparent.’ The authenticity of the investigations done by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) on the scandal was also questioned. A situation like that could not be left unaddressed because with such significant public offices letting this continue would be a recipe for disaster.
Other issues leading to the inquiry included complaints of illegal or unethical methods by which journalists obtained stories , the harassment and pressure placed both on members of the public caught up in stories attracting enormous press coverage and those in the public eye whether because of their celebrity status or otherwise, the failure of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) to address the activities of the News of the World to provide adequate regulatory oversight in relation to the press; to provide adequate redress for those complaining of press misconduct save in limited circumstances; and to ensure that its remit embraced the press as a whole. Also, a bid by News Corporation to buy 61.9% shares in BSkyB, in addition to the 39.1% they already held, led to this inquiry because that would be an unwelcome takeover. Citing the above, Lord Leveson and his team were tasked to present recommendations to right these great flaws.
Self Regulatory Body
Even with the presence of the PCC, a press established self regulatory body was the primary recommendation that was given – the PCC was not found able to keep the situation in check. For the suggested body, a number of considerations were taken into account: effectiveness, fairness and objectivity of standards; independence and transparency of enforcement and compliance, powers and remedies; sufficient and reliable cost and financing. The report noted ‘the story is not all bad, in the sense that there have been a number of reforms in press regulation since the Second World War. That said, whilst recognising some of the good work that has been done in response to criticism, to changing attitudes and the clear recommendations of the reports, it is evident that many of the lessons of the post-war period have been ignored.’ On the question of self regulation versus statutory regulation, many of the witnesses in the inquiry noted that the press would be the best people to address the failings that had been found in the current self regulation as well as to come up with the solutions. The proposed self regulation can only succeed with the press working together on the matter. This body would have to be a genuinely independent and effective system. It would be a voluntary step to join this body and not an obligation.
On the establishment of the new body, a Code Committee would have to be created which would advise the body. This body would receive complaints and give warning notifications to the press where needed; give voluntary prepublication advice service to editors and guidance on public interest interpretation in context; encourage transparency in regard to sources and source materials for the stories (while still protecting the sources); as well as establish a whistle-blowing hotline. These would be some of the requirements of a new body to enable it run smoothly and cover any issues that arise.
As it was noted earlier, joining the new self regulatory body would be a voluntary step and no press agency would be forced to join. But with regulatory bodies that have been set up before and failed, the question arises: why then should the press take this step? What would be so good about this body that the press would decide to leave their freedom and put themselves under a governing body? Leveson noted that to entice or coerce the press to join, they had to think that it was worth it and joining would be better than staying out. This required incentives. The body had to have something that could not be found outside of it that the press needed.
The suggested incentives include a court recognized arbitration service to resolve disputes; as well as access to a quick, fair, low cost arbitration by addressing costs of civil litigation.
To give effect to the above mentioned incentives the self regulatory body would need to be underpinned by legislation, therefore, the report also recommends this. The legislation would neither establish the regulatory body nor give any rights to Parliament, Government or any other body. The legislation would:
1. Strengthen the Government’s legal duty to protect the freedom of press, something that has never been done.
2. Provide an independent process to recognize the new self-regulatory body and reassure the public of its independence and effectiveness.
3. Validate the body’s standards code and arbitrary system.
Another of the recommendations set out by Lord Justice Leveson in his report was that in the possibility that the industry reject his recommendation of a self-regulatory body, Government should require Ofcom (an already established regulation body) to act as a backstop regulator for those not prepared to join the scheme.
Beyond self-regulation, the report recommends the Office of the information Commission (ICO) to issue advice and guidance to the press and the public in the meantime. Also, the most Senior Front Bench politicians in both Government and Opposition should consider public transparency and periodical disclosure of some basic information to eliminate unwarranted secrecy that would lead the press to find any measure to get the information.
Application to Uganda’s Media
Having noted that the above situation is not found only in the U.K but can be seen in any other country and any other continent, it would be of importance to bring the report, events leading to it, and recommendations closer to home and discuss them in the light of Uganda. We should seek to observe whether it applies to the media landscape and maybe learn from it so that as a nation we do not have to reinvent the wheel.
In Uganda, phone hacking is not something that is prevalent in the media. However the general concept of disregard of the people that are being covered should be what is discussed and whether the press needs to be reigned in. In many ways, the Ugandan press needs regulation. Uganda has both a self-regulatory body (Independent Media Council) and a statutory body (Uganda Media Council) which have both failed to provide the needed regulation due to various reasons not the least of which is the divisive situation of two regulatory bodies. However, according to Paul Mukasa, former Secretary Media Council, in his paper “Media Regulation in Uganda With Regard to Integration” How The Uganda Media Council Works And The Challenges It Faces, ‘The Media Council has arbitrated several cases and has awarded damages to the aggrieved… has exercised some disciplinary controls over journalists, editors and publishers through written warnings to abide by the requirements set by the law, requests to respect Professional Code of Conduct, requests to desist from publishing and voicing pornographic materials and programmes… there is also a section of journalists in Uganda who believe in self regulation and self censorship… This is a welcome phenomenon because we believe that self regulation arises from an independent, free and responsible media which is one of the objectives of our Constitution. Nevertheless, we also believe that in a young democracy and a young journalism profession, a Statutory Media Council is still necessary… Many media personnel doubt the independence of the Media Council from government… Some people may call the Media Council toothless… The Media has been widely privatized that the control is almost impossible.’
An agreed upon self-regulatory body will be welcome in Uganda because it will bring the much needed unity in the media as well as earn the media respect and trust among Government and the public at large. As it is, currently the media is seen as reckless, opportunistic liars. Of course, incentives for joining such a body would need to be great to get the different players interested. If this is done, the Ugandan media will be able to do so much more.
Addressing Press-Politician relations is one thing that would apply to the Ugandan media. Some of the media is owned by politicians and some are just sympathetic towards parties, individuals and/or ideologies. The New Vision leans towards the Government and the Daily Monitor can be seen favouring the opposition.
Ugandan self regulation and all that comes under it should be backed by legislation so that it is recognized by the courts. The media cannot be left to run around without any legislation. However, with the current political scene not being entirely free and fair one wonders if the legislation will not bring undesired control into a body that is to be independent according to Leveson. For such a system to work it has to have a working environment to thrive in both politically, socially, economically.
This article has been greatly informed by the Leveson Report.