Report offers the least worst solution with a firm gaze in the rear-view mirror on carnage Murdoch papers left.

As the public part of his big inquiry was getting under way just over a year ago, Lord Justice Leveson spoke of "the elephant in the room" - the internet. The phrase, which he would repeat more than once in following days, suggested that he got it. He had grasped just how vastly and irreversibly the shape of the media was changing.

But he didn't get it. Or he couldn't face it. And so the report on the culture, practices and ethics of the British press published a week ago is elephantine in more than just its size.

The internet gets a sprinkling of mentions along the way, but only five paragraphs are devoted to the subject in a chapter headed "The relevance of the internet", which begins on the 736th of 1987 pages.

The chapter might be more accurately titled "The irrelevance of the internet". The online world is an "ethical vacuum", writes Leveson. "People will not assume that what they read on the internet is trustworthy or that it carries any particular assurance or accuracy." It intrinsically lacks "the notional imprimatur or kitemark" of a newspaper.


But such an assertion is, as others have pointed out, as sensible as saying that what you hear on the telephone is inherently trustworthy. What matters is who is talking.

Leveson points to those naked Prince Harry photographs. There is a "qualitative difference", he says, between their publication online and in a newspaper.

He means that the "intrusion" is vastly greater in print form. But to people who have grown up with the WiFi on, the qualitative difference is almost entirely the opposite: the pictures' print publication is neither here nor there; their appearance online is everything.

Leveson has clunked his learned tome squarely on the lid of Pandora's box. An elephant-shaped Pandora's box, if you must. And while the reflex is easy to understand - he has 2000 pages already, without lumping in the unwieldy questions of digital disruption - he has done more than just bury the matter. His report is erudite and engaging. But already it is out of date.

Because the extraordinary shift implied by digital technologies, chief among them the internet, changes almost everything. What nerds call convergence means that the old divisions of TV, radio, print, etc, are melting away. The television people produce screeds of printed words on their sites; newspapers' sites, meanwhile, are full of video and audio content. On top of and intertwined with all that is the rise of web journalism, or the blog, amorphous term though that is.

Here in New Zealand, our own examination of the state of the press and regulation puts these questions front and centre.

The Law Commission's ongoing review has at its heart, built into its central remit, the internet - its task being "to review the adequacy of the regulatory environment in which New Zealand's news media is operating in the digital era". There was no such clear directive for Leveson - but neither was there any excuse for failing to engage with it. (The NZ Law Commission's issues paper was delivered as a submission to Leveson; he seemingly didn't give it much stock.)

As the Law Commission review recognises, convergence of media is likely to require a convergence of regulation. It recognises, too, that online journalism, including bloggers, should fall under its purview, envisaging a system whereby individual bloggers can be afforded the privileges of the press (such as privacy act exemptions) if they opt in to the regulatory framework.


All of this stuff, and how to accommodate it in a regulatory framework, not to mention the equally dizzy-making challenge of social media, can invite an almighty headache. Especially when faced with an angry mob - the press! the irony! - roaring threats about the impact of legislation (such a change would lead to Britain "following in the footsteps of Putin and Beijing and tyrants worldwide", seethed one long-serving Sun columnist this week).

But of course it's messy. Press regulation can never be got right. Like systems of government, like dentistry, the best is the least worst. Leveson, however, appears to have been searching for the least worst solution with a firm gaze in the rear view mirror, and the hack-happy carnage left by Murdoch's tabloids on the road behind. Meanwhile, we're entitled to be quietly satisfied that New Zealand's alternative effort is focusing on the bumpy, unfamiliar terrain ahead.