In four volumes, over thousands of pages, Lord Leveson has today issued the report stemming from his inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. In a tempestuous debate in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister clashed with Labour Leader Ed Miliband over proposals to introduce legislation to underpin a new, more aggressive, regulator. In a break with normal procedure, they were then followed by a separate statement from the Deputy Prime Minister, who gave the backing of the Liberal Democrats to the Leveson Report, making clear a fundamental difference of opinion within Government.
The Leveson Inquiry was set up by the Prime Minister with the full support of all political parties following a public outcry at reports that the mobile phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler had been hacked by those working for the News of the World. The phone hacking investigation had been rumbling along within the Westminster bubble for many months, with several leading politicians, including former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott, claiming to have had their phones hacked.
These claims were given a party political edge in that the former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, who had resigned two weeks before the newspapers Royal reporter was jailed for his involvement in phone hacking, had been appointed by the Conservative Party as the party’s communications director, and taken into Government by David Cameron in May 2010.
It was the allegations that a journalist had hacked the voicemail of murdered teenager Milly Dowler that got the attention of the public, however. Revelations soon after that reporters had hacked the voicemail of the families of British soldiers killed in action led to the biggest selling British newspaper being closed down by parent company News International.
Lord Justice Leveson heard from hundreds of witnesses, including three former Prime Ministers, as well as the current Prime Minister, under oath like any other witness. He has written a very detailed report and many of his recommendations receive support from all sides of the House of Commons. It is, however, his proposals for legislation to underpin independent regulation of the press that has caused a split in the political consensus.
The print media has spent the last few weeks setting the scene for the Leveson Report, spinning the lie that any form of legislation will amount to state regulation of the press, akin to North Korea or Syria. Frankly that was never going to fly once the report was published, and many countries that are considered free democracies have some form of statutory regulation for the press; Ireland and Denmark are hardly bastions of fundamental dictatorship.
Indeed we already have statutory regulation of the media in this country. The broadcast media is already heavily regulated by Ofcom, yet programmes such as BBC’s Panorama and C4′s Dispatches continue to carry out in depth investigative reporting.
The print media is currently responsible to a system of voluntary regulation, which many feel has failed, including Lord Justice Leveson. Yet the libel laws (currently being gutted by the Coalition Government) do give a more responsive form of redress for those who are defamed in the media; the McCann’s received substantial payouts from a number of national newspapers, as did Christopher Jefferies and others.
It is the online media that represents the real cowboys and wideboys of journalism. Whilst many online media outlets are reputable and align themselves to a form of journalistic ethics, the internet is the Wild West of journalism, where often anything goes. This site voluntarily adheres to the Editors Code of the PCC, but of greater concern is the libel laws; unlike Guido Fawkes and other sites, we haven’t chosen web hosting away from the UK to avoid British justice.
On the culture, practices and ethics of some in the press, Lord Leveson’s words are very stark.
He finds that “…there have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist”.
He cites “press behaviour that, at times, can only be described as outrageous”.
He catalogues a number of examples of such behaviour, going wider than phone hacking.
He refers to “a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected”.
He finds that “when the story is just too big and the public appetite too great, there has been significant and reckless disregard for accuracy”.
And he reports “a cultural tendency within parts of the press vigorously to resist or dismiss complainants almost as a matter of course”.
The approach chosen by Lord Justice Leveson is one of independent regulation underpinned by statute. He specifically rules out the statutory regulation, stating that any legislation must not set up the independent regulator; that is for the industry to do itself. He also says that neither Government nor Parliament, nor any other regulator, should have the right to prevent newspapers from publishing any material whatsoever. And he doesn’t want to see the newspapers forced to print anything, except for any apology or retraction, which should be prominent.
The issue of principle is that for the first time we would have crossed the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.
We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.
In this House – which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries – we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.
On the grounds of practicality, no matter how simple the intention of the new law, the legislation required to underpin the regulatory body would I believe become more complicated.
Paragraphs 71 and 72 in the Executive Summary begin to set out what would be needed in the legislation if refers to, for instance, validating the standards code and recognising the powers of the new body, for example.
And if you turn to page 1772 in Volume IV of the full report, it says this about the new law: it “must identify those legitimate requirements and provide a mechanism to recognise and certify that a new body meets them”.
The danger is that this would create a vehicle for politicians whether today or some time in the future to impose regulation and obligations on the press, something that Lord Justice Leveson himself wishes to avoid.
Third, on the grounds of necessity – I am not convinced at this stage that statute is necessary to achieve Lord Justice Leveson’s objectives.
I believe there may be alternative options for putting in place incentives, providing reassurance to the public and ensuring the Leveson principles of regulation are put in place and these options must be explored.
Mr Cameron went on to call for cross party talks with the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders to see if they can take forward the Leveson principles without the need for specific legislation.
These talks seem doomed to failure if they are not about implementation of all the recommendations, however, as Labour leader Ed Miliband immediately made clear. Unlike the Prime Minister, he accepted all the recommendations of Lord Leveson in full and called on the Government to adopt them all, at once.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s offer of immediate cross-party talks on the implementation of the recommendations on press regulation.
These talks must be about implementing these recommendations, not whether we implement them.
These talks must:
Agree a swift timetable for implementation of these proposals.
Agree to legislate in the next session of Parliament starting in May 2013.
With a new system up and running at the latest by 2015.
And by the end of January of next year we should have an opportunity for the whole House to endorse and proceed with the Leveson proposals.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said changing the law was the only way to ensure “the new regulator isn’t just independent for a few months or years, but is independent for good”.
Locally we’re lucky. Lord Justice Leveson recognised the fundamental difference between the national press and the regional press. He expressly singled out the regional media for praise:
As to the commercial problems facing newspapers, I must make a special point about Britain’s regional newspapers. In one sense, they are less affected by the global availability of the biggest news stories but their contribution to local life is truly without parallel. Supported by advertisements (and, in particular, local property, employment, motor and personal), this source of income is increasingly migrating to the internet; local councils are producing local newsletters and therefore making less use of their local papers. Many are no longer financially viable and they are all under enormous pressure as they strive to re-write the business model necessary for survival. Yet their demise would be a huge setback for communities (where they report on local politics, occurrences in the local courts, local events, local sports and the like) and would be a real loss for our democracy. Although accuracy and similar complaints are made against local newspapers, the criticisms of culture, practices and ethics of the press that have been raised in this Inquiry do not affect them: on the contrary, they have been much praised. The problem surrounding their preservation is not within the Terms of Reference of the Inquiry but I am very conscious of the need to be mindful of their position as I consider the wider picture.
“I dislike regulation unless it’s entirely necessary, and I’m allergic to regulation of what people might think or say. My own experience of the national media, both in the short time I’ve been an MP and whilst I’ve grown up, with it is a pretty bruising one.
“I know what the national media can be capable of.
“I listened to the arguments today very carefully and I’m going to think at length about it.
Commenting on the difference between the local newspapers and the national print media, Mr Gummer added “There seems to be a rigour to the way local journalists pursue and write about stories which larger and national and richer journalists don’t feel they have to abide by.”
Lord Justice Leveson has produced a weighty tome, a highly detailed report that will take politicians weeks to work through. Whether there will be new legislation is still a matter for debate. Certainly the status quo can’t continue. Should the print media still be allowed to self regulate? Everyone agrees they want to protect freedom of the press. Yet the abuses of those freedoms justify the restrictions suggested by Leveson.